We All Know The Best Thing About The Super Bowl Is Wings
Here's how one chef learned to love them: trials, tribulations, and maybe a near structure fire.
January 24, 2017 ● 3 min read
The first piece of fried chicken I ever ate was not a wing: it was a McDonald's chicken nugget. I immediately fell in love.
Perched in the kids’ nook surrounded by giant plastic McDonald's characters, a Happy Meal toy in my lap, I was forever changed. The nuggets fit perfectly in my tiny hands. The meat was unlike any chicken I had ever eaten before. And the weird, vaguely crisp coating was extra delicious when peeled away and dipped into the gooey, saccharine, sweet & sour sauce.
So imagine my surprise when my aunt sat me down in a wing joint in Buffalo, New York. Not any old wing joint mind you, but THE wing joint: Anchor Bar, the purported originator of the OG Buffalo wing. It was dark inside; as your eyes adjusted to the dusty air, you smelled something like stale beer. There was an old, beat-up bar, and a bunch of high-top tables with no chairs. Peanut shells littered the floor. “You can just throw them on the floor when you’re done with them,” my aunt told me. The real shock came when the wings hit the table; a bright orange, glistening mountain of meat.
Wing culture is absolutely a thing, with a vast array of styles related to sauces, rubs, and even “correct” ways to eat. Spicy, herbed, teriyaki-glazed, dry-rubbed…and don't even get me started on those fringe monsters that ride for lemon pepper. So what is it about wings? What allows them to span the full spectrum of food culture, from .25 wing specials at the local dive to Michelin star menus at Pok Pok?
Who the fuck knows, really, but there's something both satisfying and primal about ripping into a plate of wings. Your hands get messy, you leave a literal pile of bones in your wake. It’s a cross-cultural, high-low brow dish unlike anything else.
Cautiously, my young self bit down, and just as my teeth made contact with an unexpected bone, a searing vinegar heat raced across my lips. Determined, I tried another bite and came away wearing the world’s most painful lip-gloss. For my trouble, I had only bitten off a slippery chunk of cartilage. This was chicken? In what evil fucking world did this pass for chicken? Puzzlingly, some of them had two smaller bones, instead of one bigger one. Watching my mom and aunt joyously take down the basket with their cold beer, I couldn't understand what they could possibly like about this.
My following experiences with wings would prove equally traumatic. There would be that time I tried the teriyaki wings congealing under the heat lamp at the Safeway deli counter (somehow both wet and dry, should've gotten the chicken tenders). The time that I tried the wings at Chili’s as my shift meal before waiting tables there (DO NOT EAT A DOZEN WINGS ALL BY YOURSELF BEFORE WAITING TABLES ON A BUSY FRIDAY NIGHT). Finally, there would be the time that my friend and I, stoned out of our minds, would almost burn down his parents house by plunging a brick of frozen chicken wings into a comically tiny, screaming hot pot of oil. Around this time, I decided to cut my losses and stick to frozen egg rolls and Totinos.
I went a few years without any sort of wing-related calamity in my life until I was tasked with family meal duties at the restaurant I was working at. There were always spare wings laying around, and when whatever wasn't used for stock passed to me, I would agonize over them — there were failed bone-laden braises, sticky baked versions, and attempts at grilling that were as pathetic as they were burnt.
It was only out of desperation one night that I returned to my roots, and to Anchor Bar. I fried the wings, melted some butter, added a truckload of Frank’s Red Hot, and cut some celery batons. The pantry cook gave me her day-old blue cheese dressing. I put them out and half expected to get shouted at for half-assing it, but instead, I was greeted with happy faces, fingers stained with wing sauce, and pats on the back. I sat down and ate a few myself, and promptly had a realization: the rip of crackling skin followed by delicate meat, the bracing, high-acid heat, and even the strangely satisfy grisly crunch of cartilage.
It only took 13 years, several humiliations and a near structure fire, but I finally cracked my own chicken wing code. I could see beauty in the weird, misshapen meat sticks. It was a new day: I could finally see the light.
Next week there is something happening called the “Super Bowl,” but as far as we’re concerned, that means it’s Wing Week. Tune in every day this week for a different tidbit of wing wisdom from none other than Wing Wing’s Christian Ciscle and his number one fan and wing analyst Greg Miller.