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Where the Buffalo (Wings) Roam

The National Buffalo Wing Festival and the promise of cultural redemption for a faded Rust Belt metropolis

On a sunny early September morning in Buffalo, New York, a bearded volunteer in a pair of camouflage cargo shorts and an orange t-shirt ceremoniously filled a bright blue plastic kiddie pool with fifteen gallons of blue cheese dip. It was 90 degrees out, and steamy wafts of blue cheese funk drifted over the audience, which had clustered in the center of the baseball stadium. A woman with a microphone warned the front row of spectators that they were in the “splash zone,” but this only drew them closer.

An aluminum tray filled with a hundred chicken wings emerged. The fried pieces were dumped into the vat, where they lingered on top of the bumpy white surface for a moment before glugging to the bottom. Three people, with nervous smiles and bright eyes, in crisp black tees, black aprons, and baseball caps bounded onto the stage and were handed pairs of goggles. The crowd went wild.

The contestants had three minutes to bob for as many chicken wings as possible — it’s surprisingly difficult to discern whether one’s mouth is filled with chicken or just chunks of cheese, I later learned. Each person slid deeper and deeper into the tub, drawn by gravity and grease and the desire to win, until all three were almost fully submerged, so that displaced dip began to surge over the sides of the pool. A hundred and eighty seconds later, the three emerged, beaming and newly baptized and unable to stomach blue cheese for the next six months.

The winner was Brianna Hollier, a young woman from Florida with two full sleeves of tattoos. She fished 22 wings out of the pool; her two opponents only gathered 21 and 6 wings, respectively. We talked after the competition, while she waited for festival volunteers to track down a hose. Still drenched in cheese and baking in the sun, she told me that bobbing for wings had been a dream of hers for years, but she had never been able to come to Buffalo to compete until a recent double mastectomy afforded her all the time she needed. Her girlfriend had begged her not to go through with the plan, but nothing was going to stop her. "I’ve always wanted to do it, and I never thought I’d get picked," she said.

Karen McMahon, one of the other participants who was visiting from Ithaca with her grandchildren, wasn’t initially selected to compete, but her wife mentioned to the organizers that it was her birthday, and they pulled some strings so that she could bob for wings too. "Everything’s so serious in the world. I’m getting old, but I can still have fun," McMahon told me. "Just something new and different."

The annual National Buffalo Wing Festival, held each Labor Day weekend, is a two-day spectacle of Buffalo pride: Tens of thousands of people, mostly locals and mostly in Bills jerseys, swarm Coca-Cola Field in downtown Buffalo to eat a collective half a million wings, drink Labatt Blue, and wallow in blue cheese. To enter the stadium, all you need is $5 and a strong constitution; once inside, each wing costs a dollar. The perimeter of the field is lined with about 30 different vendors, but traffic tends to hover around 2nd base, where a large stage hosts back-to-back entertainment: local bands, beauty pageants, spirit contests, cooking competitions, competitive eating, and of course, bobbing for wings.

Because Buffalo has created so few cultural exports, when it comes to the city’s identity, chicken wings have surprising gravity. Whenever someone asks me about my hometown, I rattle off a hodge-podge list of "Buffalo things" and wait to see a spark of recognition: Ani DiFranco, the Goo Goo Dolls, Vincent Gallo, Rich Non-Dairy Creamer, then, finally, wings. Invariably, everybody knows what Buffalo wings are, and Buffalo natives feed on the widespread recognition. Like the Bills — whose mere existence is a boon to the city’s sense of dignity and self-worth, even though they haven’t gone to the Super Bowl in more than 20 years — wings force the rest of the country to pay mind to Buffalo, gifting it a cultural significance not quite matched by being the birthplace of Millard Fillmore or the setting for Buffalo '66.

Buffalo wings are not derived from buffalos, which are shockingly wingless, but were invented in Buffalo, as one might guess, although Buffalonians, which is what people from Buffalo call ourselves, simply say "chicken wings." People who have lived here for their entire lives usually pronounce it as a single word, "chickawing," as if they have said it so many times that the two words eventually grew together. The hours of time saved by using this conjunction is time better spent salting the driveway, watching a football game, or trudging through gray slush to a tanning salon.

As the most agreed-upon origin story goes, the Buffalo wing was conceived one night in 1964, at a family-run Italian restaurant called the Anchor Bar. A few neighborhood regulars were hanging around late, and the owners, Frank and Teressa Bellissimo, wanted to cook them a little snack. It was a Friday, so Catholics couldn’t eat meat, but it was almost midnight and Teressa had some chicken wings in the kitchen — usually scraps used in stocks and soups. She broke the wings at the joints into smaller segments, fried them, and doused them in hot sauce. She also had some blue cheese salad dressing in the kitchen and some celery, so that's what she served them with. The dish was a hit and quickly became a regular menu item.

Half a century later, the Anchor Bar is a pilgrimage site for wingheads, celebrity chefs, and those passing through town looking for a "Buffalo experience." In 1980, when Calvin Trillin wrote about Buffalo wings for the New Yorker, a local described them to him succinctly as "a blue-collar dish for a blue-collar town." Like a lot of Rust Belt cities, the last half century hasn’t been kind to Buffalo, and it doesn’t help that the city finds itself buried under lake effect snow for six months out of the year. As American manufacturing declined, businesses petered out or moved, traffic along the Erie Canal died down, and people with money fled.

The city’s population, which peaked in the 1950s and plummeted in subsequent decades, is only about 250,000, though it remains the second largest city in New York State. Even with mild economic improvement, the poverty rate exceeds 30 percent — roughly half of all children in Buffalo grow up in poverty — making it one of the poorest big cities in the country. On most days, downtown Buffalo is a ghost town of empty Art Deco buildings flanked by derelict grain elevators and the Lake Erie waterfront.

Wings may have been born of scraps and a vigorous sense of thrift, but today, as incredible as it sounds, they give Buffalo some hope that it might rise out of its Rust Belt grogginess. They’re what presidents eat when they’re in town and what famous chefs write about. It doesn’t matter that Barack Obama or Mario Batali might be eating wings just to seem in touch with blue-collar tastes. It only matters that they came and they ate and they affirmed the city’s position that Buffalo wings are a national treasure.

Though Buffalo wings are more than fifty years old and have been a core component of Buffalonian identity for decades, the National Buffalo Wing Festival is not a long-standing tradition. It was inspired by the movie Osmosis Jones, a 15-year-old box office bomb starring Bill Murray and Chris Rock that is a sort of a half-animated precursor to Inside Out. Instead of being about emotional intelligence, though, it’s about a man eating poorly and experiencing horrible digestive consequences.

In the movie, Bill Murray’s character, Frank, comes across a pamphlet for the National Buffalo Wing Festival and decides to take his daughter on a road trip. Chris Rock, playing a cartoon white blood cell, helps regulate Frank’s immune system in spite of his gross, unhygienic eating habits. On his way to the festival, Frank falls into a coma and is then taken to the hospital and saved. When he wakes up, he vows to get healthy and never makes it to Buffalo.

When the movie came out in 2001, a columnist for the Buffalo News wrote an article about how shameful it was that the city did not in fact host a chicken wing festival. It didn’t seem to matter that Buffalo, in the context of the film, was a metaphor for depravity and self-destruction and heart disease — only that Buffalo, the city and the wings, had played a major role in a movie at all.

Drew Cerza, a local wing fanatic, decided it was time to step up to the plate. Cerza, who self-identifies as "a big Buffalo guy," was 40 at the time, and worked in marketing for food brands. "I saw the article when I was cleaning out my garage one day, in the recycling bin," Cerza told me. "And I just decided to give it a shot." He rounded up a dozen or so corporate sponsors, took out a $100,000 home equity loan, and "rolled the dice," as he puts it.

Fifteen years later, the festival has 72,000 attendees, with visitors from all 50 states and 40 different countries, and running it has become Cerza’s full-time job. (Cerza also finds the time to run a smaller burger festival in Akron, Ohio, and has begun to dabble in real estate.) Every year, he ambles around the festival grounds in a gigantic foam chicken wing hat and a t-shirt that says "Wing King," playing the part of festival leader and mascot. And if the city needed more reasons to regard Cerza as a local hero, the festival has raised $325,000 over the years for local charities like Meals on Wheels, Food Bank of WNY, and the Alzheimer’s Association, while all of the leftover chicken wings at the end of the weekend are given to Friends of the Night, a local homeless shelter.

Cerza attributes much of the festival’s success to the internet — YouTube, unsurprisingly, is littered with videos of people diving head-first into tubs of blue cheese — and what he calls "the whole foodie rise." Foods that are outlandish or gross have become meme-ified, and oft-overlooked dishes from forgotten towns across the country are fodder for five-minute television segments. "Since we started back in the early 2000s, the Food Network and the Travel Channel have probably been out here to film a show up around eight or nine times," Cerza said. "And those shows still run, and they run several times a year. It’s great marketing." In 2007, Bobby Flay visited Buffalo and engaged Cerza in a "throwdown" to see who could make the best wings. Cerza destroyed Flay, and the episode went down in the festival’s history as a testament to Buffalo’s unvanquished ability to make its namesake dish better than anybody else.

Bill Murray has never actually attended the festival, but Cerza continues to credit him as an inspiration because of his role in Osmosis Jones. In 2011, Cerza inducted him into the "Hall of Flame" — a designation for people who have contributed in a meaningful way to the growth of the chicken wing industry. "I think Bill Murray’s the kind of guy who would just show up unannounced, if he did," Cerza told me. "He’s kind of a quiet guy behind the scenes. He just shows up places."

When the New York Times critic Craig Claiborne visited Buffalo in 1981, he tried Buffalo wings for the first time and declared them to be “an inspired combination of foods” and “marvelous.” He begged the Anchor Bar for their recipe with no luck. But the canonical Buffalo wing does not vary much from restaurant to restaurant: You deep-fry a wing, douse it in a mixture of melted butter and Frank’s Red Hot, then serve it quickly, with a side of blue cheese dressing (definitely not ranch) and celery sticks. The crackly fried skin soaks up the butter-thickened, vinegary hot sauce and makes you forget that you’re eating a tiny, sinewy shred of meat. They’re easy to replicate and easy to scale, so they’re now found in restaurants from California to Kenya to Australia. Once, I ordered some memorably dismal Buffalo wings at a bar in Dublin that was owned by Bono.

The basic formula of a Buffalo wing lends itself to nearly infinite experimentation. If you were to walk into the National Buffalo Wing Festival with $100, you could try 100 different wings from more than 20 different vendors. Some were just small variations on the classic wing, using sriracha in place of Frank’s Red Hot or fortifying the hot sauce with habaneros, while others mashed up wings with entirely different foods, like baked potatoes or souvlaki. Though famous Buffalo institutions like Anchor Bar and Duff’s and La Nova had booths, some of the longest lines were for out-of-towners like Boneheads from Rhode Island and King of the Wings from Australia. Remarkably, even Hard Rock Cafe and Buffalo Wild Wings were there, peddling their corporate, rubber-stamped wings.

Over the course of two days, I managed to consume 16 wings, one slice of pizza, one scoop of Bills-themed ice cream (full of red and blue sprinkles and tiny chocolate peanut butter footballs), and one beer. The best wing was a simple barbecue one from Bocce’s that had been fried, sauced, and then charred lightly on the grill. There were several options tied for worst. An "Asian Buffalo ranch" wing tasted like sweet chili sauce that had been accidentally tainted with some Frank’s Red Hot. The "Breakfast at Tiffany’s" wing from Boneheads was doused in artificial maple flavoring and sprinkled with tiny pieces of bacon that slid off the soupy wings in clumps. And a peanut butter and jelly wing tasted exactly how it sounds — like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich full of meat you weren’t expecting.

Of course, there was beer. Local breweries like Big Ditch, Flying Bison, and Resurgence served plastic cups of their craft beers from the tap, but most people drank Labatt Blue. Though a Canadian beer, Labatt is Buffalo’s Budweiser. It is the beer that Buffalonians stock up on before a blizzard and the first beer they ever learn to get drunk on. "Blue Light Lime" rolls off the tongue in Buffalo as easily as "Bud Light Lime" might roll off the tongue at a frat party in Texas. Judges sitting at picnic tables, blind-tasting wings from each of the vendors, used tallboys of Labatt Blue as their palate cleansers. I asked a festival-goer in a gigantic three-dimensional chicken wing hat and a t-shirt that said, "I got sauced in Buffalo, NY," what beer goes best with wings. "There’s nothing more Buffalo than having a Canadian beer and some chicken wings," he slurred.

The National Buffalo Wing Festival takes another cue from Osmosis Jones: in the scene when Bill Murray’s character suggests that his daughter compete for the title of Miss Buffalo Wing. The IRL annual pageant has come a long way from its first few years, Cerza said, when it involved a $500 cash prize and a swimsuit contest. “The problem with that was that Canada is like 30 minutes away, and they’ve got a lot of gentleman’s clubs,” he told me. “So the girls that came down were kind of dicey, let’s just say.” One year, the winner was a “real pretty gal” who happened to have recently given birth to triplets. “That’s when I knew we needed a screening process,” he added. He put the head of a local charm school in charge of running the pageant and screening for wholesome contenders — no strippers and no mothers.

A handful of twentysomething women lined the stage in short cocktail dresses, each poised and ready to prove that she was more charming and more Buffalo-spirited than the next. At stake was the honor of the Miss Buffalo Wing title, the opportunity to co-host next year’s pageant, and $250 in cash. The judges’ goal was to find someone young, beautiful, and ambitious with Buffalo at the center of her universe — someone with big, pure dreams for her downtrodden city, untainted by thoughts of faraway places or by the realities of stripping or mothering.

Though every contestant emphasized their love for Buffalo and for chicken wings, the winner of the pageant, a 21-year-old named Emmalee Stawicki, was the only one to make a metaphorical connection between the city and the wings. Other contestants had mentioned travels to exotic locales like Texas, or dreams of becoming cruise directors. (In a moment that was exhilaratingly painful to watch, one of the pageant contestants admitted to being an Eagles fan. The audience responded with complete and utter silence. She paused, a nervous smile falling over her face. "But when I’m here in Buffalo, I’m a Bills fan," she said quickly, and as an afterthought shouted, "Let’s go Buffalo!")

In Stawicki’s closing words, she said, "The chicken wing is one of the things that makes people love Buffalo worldwide. So if I could represent the chicken wing, I am representing my hometown, Buffalo, New York." After the pageant, I asked Stawicki what she got out of competing. "You get $250 to do whatever you want with," she said. "It’s probably going to go toward my textbooks. But then you just get to, like, enjoy the event, walk around, host some of the activities and stuff. So there’s a lot of great perks for being Miss Buffalo Wing." Over the course of the day, I saw her roaming the baseball field, still in her pristine white dress and "Miss Buffalo Wing 2016" sash.

Each of the festival’s two days featured its fair share of competitive eating. There were amateur rounds, college competitions, and of course, the main attraction: professional contests featuring national heroes like Joey Chestnut and Sonia Thomas scarfing down inhuman amounts of chicken wings and roast beef. The eating contests brought by far the largest audiences to the stage — seas of people who had just tested the limits of their own appetites and wanted to see how the experts did it.

About two minutes into one of the amateur wing-eating contests, one of the dozen or so competitors ralphed. Just as the eaters were beginning to fall into rhythm, a hulking man in the center of the stage stood up straight, turned around, and several pounds of not-quite digested chicken went flying dangerously close to the camera crews positioned behind him. The hundred-person audience gathered around the stage screamed in unison, I tried to look away, and the emcee announced that the puker was disqualified. Two medics stood by solemnly, looking disinterested, as a chicken mascot danced faintly in the background. The contest continued as whispers spread across the audience that the puker had made the mistake of drinking beer right beforehand. Afterwards, George Shea, the chairman of Major League Eating, told me that vomiting during competitive eating events is "as rare as it is unfortunate. And it was epic, in a bad way."

The competitive eating bigwigs, the festival’s headliners, didn’t come out until later. The professionals are all part of the Major League Eating organization and are shipped in to local food festivals like this one as part of their contracts, and for the opportunity to win $2500. Disappointed by my inability to eat more than eight wings per day, I asked some of the professionals what they do to prepare. Joey Chestnut told me that he had gone for a long walk before the competition. Mary Bowers, who is currently ranked no. 43 in the world, told me, "I like to try to stay rested, hydrated. But I came in from the West Coast traveling on the red-eye so any sort of routine that I had is sort of out the door." I asked Sonia Thomas if she eats anything specific leading up to the competition. She said, "I haven’t eaten anything today, but chicken wings are not really a lot of food. This is more technique — how you get the meat off the bone fast and swallow it."

As the countdown began for Sunday’s professional eating event, the United States Chicken Wing Eating Championship, a massive audience began to pack in around the stage. Heaping five-pound aluminum trays of chicken wings were placed at each contestant’s spot, and George Shea from Major League Eating began to introduce competitors. Joey Chestnut arrived last, wading through the screaming crowd and leaping onto the stage while his trademark song, "Teenage Wasteland," played in the background. As the eaters took their places, they each began their pre-competition rituals — taking their shoes off, pouring out cups of coffee or Gatorade. Joey Chestnut told me that he only drinks warm water while competing.

Sonia Thomas had been right that this competition was more about technique than about appetite. She and Mary Bowers used their hands to rip the chicken from the bone in between bites. Some contestants turned the wing around like a cob of corn, while they bit the meat off. Gideon Oji, who ultimately came in second place with 177 wings, simply inserted the wing into his mouth the long way and scraped the meat off in one rapid movement as he pulled the wing out.

I had found it difficult to watch someone soaking their body in blue cheese or vomiting hot wings, but here I was at the end of my two-day odyssey, standing as close to the stage as I could to watch 11 adult humans swallowing angry fistfuls of meat between gulps of warm water. In the space next to the stage where I stood lay the collapsed kiddie pool of blue cheese from earlier, covered haphazardly with a tarp and oozing slowly. My constitution was weak, and this was the final test. I took a deep breath, didn’t vom, and kept my eyes on the stage.

As the crowd began to count down the final ten seconds, Joey Chestnut swallowed his 188th wing, putting him in first place. It was a feat of physicality and endurance, but also an exuberant performance of bounty in an economically downtrodden town. Sweating and panting and covered in grease, Joey was all Buffalo could want in a hero at that moment: He had consumed everything the city had offered him, reveled in it, filled himself with it. The faces in the audience were lit with the warm, giddy pride of hosts whose dinner guest had just asked for another helping.

Anna Hezel is writer based in Brooklyn, via Buffalo, New York.
Brendan Bannon is a photographer based between New York and Nairobi.
Editor: Matt Buchanan


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