How Buffalo Wings Took Over America

By Matt Blitz |
HISTORY OF BUFFALO WINGS FWX

© Ray Hom

There’s a good chance that you’ll eat a Buffalo wing (or 28) while watching this year’s Super Bowl. According to the National Chicken Council, Americans are going to consume 1.3 billion wings on Super Bowl Sunday. For a visual, that’s enough poultry to stretch from the Panthers’ home field at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte to Sports Authority Field in Denver nearly 53 times. And that’s a 3 percent increase in wing consumption from last year, when our nation supposedly only ate 1.25 billion wings during the big game.

How did the Buffalo wing take over America? It all started in snowy western New York...

There are two generally accepted Buffalo wing origin stories and they both involve Teressa Bellissimo, co-owner of the original Anchor Bar in Buffalo, New York. The Italian restaurant and bar was founded in 1939 by Bellissimo and her husband Frank Bellissimo, but it would take two decades before Anchor Bar would make its mark in food lore. The first story comes courtesy of Frank Bellissimo and takes place on an undetermined date in the 1960s. According to Frank, the culinary innovation happened when the restaurant received an incorrect shipment. Instead of getting the typical chicken backs and necks for use in Teressa's famous spaghetti sauce, they got wings. “[The wings] were looking at you, like saying, 'I don’t belong in the sauce,’” Frank recalled in a 1980 New Yorker article. Not wanting to waste perfectly good chicken, Frank asked Teressa to try to make something new with the unwanted ingredient. She cut them in half, deep-fried them and dunked them in hot sauce. The famed appetizer was born.

Dom Bellissimo, the couple’s son, later disputed this story and, instead, gave a more detailed version of events. Bartending late one Friday night in 1964, Dom wanted to treat a couple of regulars to a late-night snack. Acknowledging that this was at a time that “Roman Catholics still confined themselves to fish and vegetables on Friday,” Dom asked his mom in the kitchen to whip up something special to be eaten at exactly the stroke of midnight, turning Friday night into Saturday morning. Taking the leftover chicken parts, which were often wings, Teressa chopped them in half, deep-fried and poured hot sauce on them. Serving it with celery and blue cheese dressing from the restaurant's house salad, it was love at first taste for the barflys. Word got around and, within weeks, the “Buffalo wing” was the pride of the city.  

While these two stories do differ, there are several similarities that have come to define true Buffalo wings. In both, Mama Bellissimo was the true inventor of this greasy delicacy. She also used the same preparation: cutting the wings in half, deep-frying them, drenching them in hot sauce, and serving them alongside celery and blue cheese dressing. Most important, the wings have their roots at Anchor Bar.

In recent years, there’ve been others that have claimed to invent the Buffalo wing - including Buffalo native Jason Young, who said that the city’s African-American community ate chicken wings regularly and he was the one who created the hot sauce, that he termed “mambo sauce.” In fact, there’s a record that Young owned a restaurant in the 1960s called “John Young’s Wings ‘n Things.” While his assertion may be legitimate, many wing experts agree that since he served them whole and breaded, they’re technically not “Buffalo wings.”

Either way, Buffalo wings’ popularity exploded over the next 50 years. In 1977, the city of Buffalo declared July 29 “Chicken Wing Day”, while crediting Mr. Bellissimo as the inventor. In the 1980 New Yorker article, the author Calvin Trillin points out, “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 be nice to have a machine that could fly.”

Today, there are Wing throwdownsWing festivals and a Wing Bowl (this year there will be a special appearance from Dennis Rodman). This spicy, greasy finger food permeates every part of our culture, from Victoria Secret models on late-night television to The White House. But the ultimate sign that the Buffalo wing has taken over America? There’s an Anchor Bar franchise in Las Vegas.

Frankly, there's nothing more American than a Sin City and deep-fried chicken slathered in hot sauce combo. 

Related: The Secret to Making the Crispiest Wings Ever 
Rule Your Next Game Day Party with This Buffalo Wing Dip 
What Does Bitter Beer Do to Spicy Food?

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