Secret Ingredients: The New Yorker Book of Food and Drink, edited by David Remnick, hardcover, 608 pages, list price: $29.95
An Attempt to Compile A Short History of the Buffalo Chicken Wing
by Calvin Trillin
I did not appreciate the difficulties historians must face regularly in the course of their research until I began trying to compile a short history of the Buffalo chicken wing. Since Buffalo chicken wings were invented less than twenty years ago, I had figured that I would have an easy task compared to, say, a medievalist whose specialty requires him to poke around in thirteenth-century Spain. Also, there is extant documentation identifying the inventor of Buffalo chicken wings as Frank Bellissimo, founder of the Anchor Bar, on Main Street — the form of the documentation being an official proclamation from the City of Buffalo declaring July 29, 1977, Chicken Wing Day. ("WHEREAS, the success of Mr. Bellissimo's tasty experiment in 1964 has grown to the point where thousands of pounds of chicken wings are consumed by Buffalonians in restaurants and taverns throughout our city each week. . .") I would not even have to rummage through some dusty archive for the document; the Anchor Bar has a copy of it laminated on the back of the dinner menu. I had the further advantage of having access to what people in the history game call "contemporary observers" — a crowd of serious chicken-wing eaters right on the scene. A college friend of mine, Leonard Katz, happens to be a Buffalonian — a native Buffalonian, in fact, who is now a dean at the medical school of the State University of New York at Buffalo. I have also known his wife, Judy, since long before the invention of the chicken wing. She is not a native Buffalonian, but she carries the special credentials that go with having been raised in New Haven, a city that claims to have been the scene of the invention of two other American specialties — the hamburger and the American pizza. Although Leonard Katz normally limits his chicken-wing consumption to downing a few as hors d'oeuvres — a policy, he assured me, that has no connection at all with the fact that his medical specialty is the gastro-intestinal tract — the rest of the family think nothing of making an entire meal out of them. Not long before I arrived, Linda Katz had returned from her freshman year at Washington University, in St. Louis — a city where the unique local specialty is, for reasons lost to historians, toasted ravioli — and headed straight for her favorite chicken-wing outlet to repair a four-month deprivation. A friend of Linda's who returned from the University of Michigan at about the same time had eaten chicken wings for dinner four nights in a row before she felt fit to continue. Judy Katz told me that she herself eats chicken wings not only for dinner but, every now and then, for breakfast — a pattern of behavior that I think qualifies her as being somewhere between a contemporary observer and a fanatic.
Even a chicken-wing eater of Judy Katz's seriousness could not have tested the full variety of Buffalo chicken wings. It is said that there are now several hundred places in the area where Buffalonians can order what they usually refer to simply as "wings" — including any number of places that also offer "a bucket of wings" to go. She has, however, obviously taken what is known in social science — a field whose methods are used increasingly by modern historians — as a fair sampling. On my first evening in Buffalo, the Katz family and some other contemporary observers of their acquaintance took me on a tour of what they considered a few appropriate chicken-wing sources so that I could make some preliminary research notes for later analysis. The tour naturally included the Anchor Bar, where celebrated visitors to Buffalo — Phyllis Newman, say, or Walter Mondale's daughter — are now taken as a matter of course, the way they are driven out to see Niagara Falls. It also included a noted chicken-wing center called Duffs and a couple of places that serve beef-on-weck — a beef sandwich on a salty roll — which happens to be the local specialty that was replaced in the hearts of true Buffalonians by chicken wings. In Buffalo, chicken wings are always offered "mild" or "medium" or "hot," depending on how much of a dose of hot sauce they have been subjected to during preparation, and are always accompanied by celery and blue-cheese dressing. I sampled mild. I sampled medium. I sampled hot. As is traditional, I washed them down with a number of bottles of Genesee or Molson — particularly while I was sampling the hot. I ate celery between chicken wings. I dipped the celery into the blue-cheese dressing. I dipped chicken wings into the blue-cheese dressing. I tried a beef-on-weck. I found that I needed another order of medium. After four hours, the tour finally ended with Judy Katz apologizing for the fact that we were too late for her favorite chicken-wing place, a pizza parlor called Santora's, which closes at 1 A.M.
The next morning, I got out my preliminary research notes for analysis. They amounted to three sentences I was unable to make out, plus what appeared to be a chicken-wing stain. I showed the stain to Judy Katz. "Medium?" I asked.
"Medium or hot," she said.
Fortunately, the actual moment that Buffalo chicken wings were invented has been described by Frank Bellissimo and his son, Dom, with the sort of rich detail that any historian would value; unfortunately, they use different details. Frank Bellissimo is in his eighties now, and more or less retired; he and his wife, Teressa, are pretty much confined to an apartment above the Anchor Bar. According to the account he has given many times over the years, the invention of the Buffalo chicken wing came about because of a mistake — the delivery of some chicken wings instead of the backs and necks that were ordinarily used in making spaghetti sauce. Frank Bellissimo thought it was a shame to use the wings for sauce. "They were looking at you, like saying, 'I don't belong in the sauce,' " he has often recalled. He implored his wife, who was doing the cooking, to figure out some more dignified end for the wings. Teressa Bellissimo decided to make some hors d'oeuvres for the bar — and the Buffalo chicken wing was born.
Dom Bellissimo — a short, effusive man who now acts as the bustling host of the Anchor Bar — tells a story that does not include a mistaken delivery or, for that matter, Frank Bellissimo. According to Dom, it was late on a Friday night in 1964, a time when Roman Catholics still confined themselves to fish and vegetables on Fridays. He was tending the bar. Some regulars had been spending a lot of money, and Dom asked his mother to make something special to pass around gratis at the stroke of midnight. Teressa Bellissimo picked up some chicken wings — parts of a chicken that most people do not consider even good enough to give away to barflies — and the Buffalo chicken wing was born.
Dom and Frank agree that Teressa Bellissimo chopped each wing in half and served two straight sections that the regulars at the bar could eat with their fingers. (The two straight pieces, one of which looks like a miniature drumstick and is known locally as a drumette, became one of the major characteristics of the dish; in Buffalo, a plate of wings does not look like a plate of wings but like an order of fried chicken that has, for some reason, been reduced drastically in scale.) She "deep-fried" them, applied some hot sauce, and served them on a plate that included some celery from the Anchor Bar's regular antipasto and some of the blue-cheese dressing normally used as the house dressing for salads. Dom and Frank also agree that the wings were an immediate success — famous throughout Buffalo within weeks. Before long, they say, chicken wings were on the dinner menu instead of being served gratis at the bar — and were beginning to nudge aside the Italian food that had always been the Anchor Bar's specialty. In the clipping libraries of the Buffalo newspapers, I could find only one article that dealt with the Bellissimo family and their restaurant in that period — a long piece on Frank and Teressa in the Courier-Express in 1969, five years after the invention of the chicken wing. It talks a lot about the musicians who had appeared at the Bellissimos' restaurant over the years and about the entertainers who used to drop in after road shows. It mentions the custom Teressa and Frank had in times gone by of offering a few songs themselves late on Saturday night — Teressa emerging from the kitchen to belt out "Oh Marie" or "Tell Me That You Love Me." It does not mention chicken wings. Perhaps the interviewer simply happened to be more interested in jazz drummers than tasty experiments. Perhaps Frank and Dom Bellissimo are, like most people, funny on dates. By chance, my most trusted contemporary observers, the Katzes, were living out of the city during the crucial period; Linda Katz looked surprised to hear that there had ever been a time when people did not eat chicken wings. The exact date of the discovery seemed a small matter, though, compared to the central historical fact, common to both Bellissimo stories, that the first plate of Buffalo chicken wings emerged from the kitchen of the Anchor Bar. It seemed to me that if a pack of revisionist historians descended on Buffalo, itching to get their hands on some piece of conventional wisdom, they would have no serious quarrel with the basic story of how the Buffalo chicken wing was invented — although the feminists among them might point out that the City of Buffalo's proclamation would have been more exact if it had named as the inventor Teressa Bellissimo. The inventor of the airplane, after all, was not the person who told Wilbur and Orville Wright that it might he nice to have a machine that could fly.
"A blue-collar dish for a blue-collar town," one of the Buffalonians who joined the Katz family and me on our chicken-wing tour said, reminding me that historians are obligated to put events in the context of their setting. Buffalo does have the reputation of being a blue-collar town and, particularly after the extraordinary winter in 1977, of being a blue-collar town permanently white with snow. Buffalonians who do much travelling have resigned themselves to the fact that the standard response to hearing that someone comes from Buffalo is a Polish joke or some line like "Has the snow melted yet?" Buffalo has always had a civic-morale problem. Could the problem have been exacerbated by making a local specialty out of a part of the chicken that somebody in San Francisco or Houston might throw away? Frank Bellissimo seemed to argue against that interpretation. "Anybody can sell steak," he told me. "But if you can sell odds and ends of one thing or another, then you're doing something." The celebrated visitors who troop through the Anchor Bar are, after all, almost always favorably impressed by Buffalo chicken wings. Craig Claiborne proclaimed them "excellent" in one of his columns — although he may have undercut the compliment a bit by saying in the same paragraph that he had remained in Buffalo for only three hours.
One way that the invention of the chicken wing seems to have improved morale is that there now exists among Buffalonians a widespread commercial fantasy of hitting it rich by introducing Buffalo chicken wings to some virgin territory. People in Buffalo are always talking about trying wings out on Southern California or testing the waters in Providence. While I was on my tour with the Katz family, Andy Katz, who is fifteen, had one question about my opinion of the local delicacy: "Do you think these would go over in Toronto?" There are already some attempts to sell wings outside of Western New York. A former Buffalonian is serving wings in the Paco's Tacos outlets of Boston. It is said that wings are available in Fort Lauderdale — where so many Buffalonians have retired that the annual events include a beef-on-weck banquet. This summer, in the new Harborplace shopping complex in the inner harbor of Baltimore, a place called Wings 'n Things opened with the announced intention of dealing in the sort of volume hitherto common only within Buffalo itself — a couple of tons of wings a week. "It takes money to make money," Dom Bellissimo told me while reflecting on the fact that his family did not parlay the invention of chicken wings into a franchise fortune. Sometimes he thinks that the opportunity has not been lost forever. "I would like to go with a chain," he told me. "I'm so ready for it. I wish I could get involved with some money people. I'd show them how to go with this thing."
About two years ago, a Buffalo stockbroker named Robert M. Budin wrote a piece for the Courier-Express Sunday magazine suggesting, in a light-hearted way, that the city adopt the chicken wing as its symbol. Budin's piece begins with two Buffalonians discussing what had happened when one of them was at a party in Memphis and was asked by a local where he was from. Deciding to "take him face on," the visiting Buffalonian had said, "I'm from Buffalo." Instead of asking if the snow had melted yet, the local had said, "Where those dynamite chicken wings come from?"
"You mean positive recognition?" the friend who is hearing the story asks. It becomes obvious to the two of them that Buffalonians should "mount a campaign to associate Buffalo with chicken wings and rid ourselves of the negatives of snow and cold and the misunderstood beef-on-weck." Budin suggested that the basketball team be called the Buffalo Wings, that the mayor begin wearing a button that says "Do Your Thing with Wings," and that a huge statue of a chicken wing (medium hot) be placed in the convention Center.
When I telephoned Budin to inquire about the response to his suggestion, he said it had not been overwhelming. He told me, in fact, that he had embarked on a new campaign to improve Buffalo's reputation. Budin said that a lot of people believed that the city's image suffered from its name. I remembered that his Sunday-magazine piece had ended "Buffalo, thy name is chicken wing." Surely he was not suggesting that the name of the city be changed to Chicken Wing, New York. What should he changed, he told me, is not the name but its pronunciation. He has taken to pronouncing the first syllable as if it were spelled "boo" — so that Buffalo rhymes with Rue de Veau. "It has a quality to it that lifts it above the prosaic 'Buffalo,' " he said.
Maybe, but I suspect that it's only a matter of time before Budin tells some corporate executive in Memphis or Cincinnati that he is calling from Boofalo and the executive says, "Has the snoo melted yet?"
On my last evening in Buffalo — just before the Katzes and I drove out on Niagara Falls Boulevard to try the wings at a place called Fat Man's Got 'Em, and just before Judy Katz gave me final instructions about the bucket of wings I was planning to take back to New York from Santora's the next day ("Get the big bucket. Whatever's left over will be fine the next morning") — I met a man named John Young, who told me, "I am actually the creator of the wing." Young, who is black, reminded me that black people have always eaten chicken wings. What he invented, he said, was the sauce that created Buffalo chicken wings — a special concoction he calls mambo sauce. He said that chicken wings in mambo sauce became his specialty in the middle sixties, and that he even registered the name of his restaurant, John Young's Wings 'n Things, at the county courthouse before moving to Illinois, in 1970. "If the Anchor Bar was selling chicken wings, nobody in Buffalo knew it then," Young said. "After I left here, everybody started chicken wings." Young, who had returned to Buffalo a few months before our talk, told me that those who had copied the dish must be saying, "Oh, man! The original King of the Wings is back. He's fixin' to do a job on you." In fact, Young said, he was pleased to see so many people in Buffalo make money off his invention — a magnanimous sentiment that I had also heard expressed by both Frank and Dom Bellissimo. "I could have formed a company and went across the country," Young told me. "It's still not too late."
The wings Young invented were not chopped in half — a process he includes in the category of "tampering with them." They were served breaded with the mambo sauce covering them. In John Young's Wings 'n Things, as well as in a restaurant called Bird Land, run by Young's brother Paul, they are still served that way — sometimes accompanied by the blue-cheese dressing and celery that were undoubtedly inspired by Teressa Bellissimo. It is true, a local poultry distributor told me, that John Young as well as Frank Bellissimo started buying a lot of chicken wings in the middle sixties, but there is no reason for the distributor to have saved the sales receipts that might indicate who was first. First with what? Was the Buffalo chicken wing invented when Teressa Bellissimo thought of splitting it in half and deep-frying it and serving it with celery and blue-cheese dressing? Was it invented when John Young started using mambo sauce and thought of elevating wings into a specialty? How about the black people who have always eaten chicken wings? The way John Young talks, black people may have been eating chicken wings in thirteenth-century Spain. How is it that historians can fix the date of the Battle of the Boyne with such precision? How can they be so certain of its outcome?
Courtesy Random House 2007.