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America’s love affair with the chicken wing, explained

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Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

Super Bowl weekend is the nexus of chicken wing season. According to the National Chicken Council, Americans will consume 1.3 billion wings in the days of feasting leading up to and including the big game.

That's quite an accomplishment for a third-tier meat.

Though wings have built-in handles, there's something mildly unsatisfying about gnawing on a tiny avian bone. That's true even before you consider the disproportionate work-to-meat ratio, which pales in comparison to that of, say, the much more satisfying thigh. Plus, there's a risk of getting sauce in that unwashable space beneath our fingernails.

America's obsession with wings and the Super Bowl almost doesn't make sense.

Until it does.

What is a chicken wing?

Ruaridh Connellan/Barcroft Media/Barcoft Media via Getty Images

"Our scientists haven't come back with the four-wing chicken yet," Tom Super, the vice president of communications at the National Chicken Council, told me with a laugh. "You don't produce a chicken just for the wings, right?"

Obviously not. But from the enthusiasm in Super's voice, I gather this is more of a pipe dream than a rhetorical question. I half-expect him to say it's not because the scientists aren't trying.

Chicken wings, as we all know, come two to a bird. But in industry terms, each bird produces four edible wings — as well as two throwaway parts that are usually shipped to China because Americans rarely use them.

Whole wings are available in supermarkets, but usually they're cut in two places. The first cut is where the drumette — a mini drumstick of sorts that connects the wing to the breast meat — meets what's called the "flat." The second cut separates the "flat" and the "tip" of the wing.

(COLOA Studio via Shutterstock)

So when we're counting the 1.3 billion "wings" that Americans will consume over the next couple of days, we're counting 1.3 billion total drumettes and flats.

How the Buffalo wing came to be

Buffalo wings.

If there's a nerve center of the American chicken wing, it's Buffalo, New York. As Super explained to me, even though fried chicken and fried chicken wings were foundations of Southern cooking, it's Buffalo that has the name recognition.

"Buffalo wings are what people outside Buffalo refer to as the style of fried and sauced chicken wings," Joe Reid, a Buffalonian journalist and dear friend, told me. "They're generally offered in hot, medium, and mild sauces, so they're not always hot. … I am a huge baby and get either medium or barbecue, though I do think they should offer a scented candle for 'hot wings,' because they do smell good."

The legend begins in 1964, with a woman named Teressa Bellissimo. Teressa's husband, Frank Bellissimo, was the founder of a Buffalo establishment called Anchor Bar, which is credited with developing what we now know as the Buffalo wing. There, Teressa served fried wings with hot sauce — and while her husband and son differ on some of the details, according to a 1980 New Yorker story, they agree that she came up with the idea and that the wings were an immediate hit.

That basic idea — a fried and sauced spicy chicken wing — is a Buffalo wing. Frank's RedHot claims that its sauce is the one Bellissimo used on that fateful day.

Buffalo wings — which are fried and sauced spicy wings — are arguably the most popular wings on Super Bowl game day.

Although Super explained to me that the National Chicken Council doesn't tabulate the different preparations of wings sold and eaten during the Super Bowl, last year the organization studied the various sauces that people dip their wings into. And by far the most popular sauce was ranch dressing — something that would complement a spicier fried chicken object. The second most popular was blue cheese, which Super explained was dominant in the Northeast and is traditionally served with spicy Buffalo wings.

Buffalo wings aren't the only type of wings people eat on game day — and frying wings isn't the only way people prepare them

Dinosaur Bar-B-Que's wings.
Daniel Krieger

As Bellissimo's Buffalo method spread, people began tweaking variables like sauces and breading. But saucing and frying chicken wings isn't the only way to prepare them.

I asked Dinosaur Bar-B-Que's (there are multiple locations) executive chef Leland Avellino, "What kind of magic happens when you fry a chicken wing?"

I half-expected him to tell me about some magical transformation.

"Not a lot! Do you get the feeling I’m not a fan of fried wings?" Avellino said, explaining that his restaurants rub wings in a spice mix and then slowly char them over a grill. "I prefer smoking wings or even baking them in an oven first. Fry them to finish them off, or, in a perfect world, grill them."

Super has a different preferred method too.

"The most popular in my house are Old Bay wings," he said, explaining that he bakes his wings and then grills them. "We do a little butter and Old Bay and sauce them and toss them in that when they come off the grill."

How did Americans fall in love with the chicken wing?

There is no glitzy or glamorous origin story behind America's love for the chicken wing. It's actually one of settling and convenience.

Back in the 1960s and '70s, families would cook whole-chicken dinners. But as the '80s came around, people began to yearn for more convenient options that were easier to prepare and eat. The result was the boneless, skinless chicken breast.

This naked and deboned (and flavorless) cut of chicken cooked faster than a whole chicken, plus it was easier to prepare, healthier, and didn't require as much cleanup as a whole chicken. After its introduction, sales of the boneless, skinless chicken breast exploded, and it's still the most popular chicken product on the market today.

In the wake of our boneless, skinless desire, the price of wings, which are attached to the breast meat, went down.

Their low cost is why bars like the Anchor Bar began to serve wings. And it was in those bars that the connection between watching sports and eating wings was born.

"When they became very popular, the wing was almost a byproduct, so the restaurants could get them very cheaply," Super said.

He also noted one very important characteristic: "It's a great group food. A big plate of wings can be shared among many people."

The true meaning of the chicken wing

There's something deeply American in the wing's humble roots and the fact that it has spread throughout the country and been interpreted in all kinds of ways.

Wings have transcended race (see: San Tung in San Francisco, a Chinese restaurant known for its wings), gender (see: the Black Widow, a.k.a. Sonya Thomas, a competitive eater whose specialty is wings), and class (see: the $4,900 chicken wing dinner versus 50-cent wing specials).

And what it comes down to is that chicken, and wings especially, is about love. Families in the '60s and '70s knew it when they shared a whole bird. And it's still true today.

Sure, there are tastier parts of a chicken than the wing, especially the dark meat. Thighs are more delicious. Drumsticks are juicier and more tender.

Indeed, "most of the world, except for [Americans], prefers the dark meat," Super told me, letting me in on a little secret: He prefers dark meat to white meat because, in his (correct) opinion, it simply tastes better.

But even digging into the inferior white meat of a chicken breast is more rewarding than gnawing on a tiny bone.

And yet, none of these other cuts can touch wings: Wings are meant to be shared, and they come with a promise of spending time with someone — friends, family, a partner, our kids. That's something we can all understand.

Being together with people we love and enjoy — maybe that's the true magic of the chicken wing.

Maybe wings make the Super Bowl, and not the other way around.

Or maybe fried food is just really fucking delicious.