Heritage Moments: The night they invented chicken wings
We’re not entirely sure how the Buffalo chicken wing was invented, but there are some good tales, and they tend to revolve around what happened one night in 1964 at the Anchor Bar, Frank and Teressa Bellissimo’s restaurant and jazz club on Main Street. However wings were invented, their fame spread so far and fast that by 1980 The New Yorker magazine had dispatched to Buffalo its venerable reporter at-large, Calvin Trillin, to unravel the mystery.
Trillin’s article, “An Attempt to Compile a Short History of the Buffalo Chicken Wing,” can and should be read here. But if you are too impatient to read its 3,010 informative, amusing and mouth-watering words, here is a summary of the conflicting accounts:
One night Frank Bellissimo was looking at a pile of chicken wings that had been delivered mistakenly in place of the backs and necks normally used to make spaghetti sauce. He thought the wings were too good to be squandered as a mere ingredient, so he had Teressa prepare them as hors d’oeuvres for the bar. She cut each wing in half, deep fried them, poured on some hot sauce and added celery and bleu-cheese dressing on the side. And that’s how Buffalo-style wings were born.
One night Frank and Teressa’s son Dom Bellissimo was presiding over the bar with a bunch of regulars. It was late and they were getting hungry, so he asked his mother to cook something up for them. Since they were Roman Catholics and this was a Friday in 1964, meat was out of the question. But Teressa came up with the solution: cook up some chicken scraps – wings, as it happened – and serve ’em up for free at the stroke of midnight, when Friday became Saturday. She cut each wing in half, deep fried them, poured on some hot sauce and added celery and bleu-cheese dressing on the side. And that’s how Buffalo-style wings were born.
That’s the story we dramatized in our Heritage Moment piece. But there’s a footnote:
Right about the same time wings emerged from the Anchor Bar, they also emerged from a Jefferson Avenue joint called John Young’s Wings ’n Things. Young’s wings were not cut in half; they were breaded and covered in a hot sauce Young called Mambo sauce, which was sweeter than the Frank’s RedHot Sauce used at the Anchor. (Both Mambo sauce, which comes from Washington, D.C., and Frank’s sauce, which comes from Louisiana, add heaping dollops of outside influence to what really should be an all-Buffalo dish.) Young’s Mambo wings were popular on Buffalo’s East Side, but the rest of deeply segregated Buffalo took little notice.
In any case, it was the Anchor Bar’s version of chicken wings that spread like wildfire through the rest of Buffalo’s bars, then beyond, right across the continent — and even overseas to, say, Dubai or Moscow or Tokyo.
Back on these shores, the average American now consumes 290 wings annually, which, if extrapolated out to the entire population, would come to a total we’d rather not calculate or think about. Instead, we’ll take a moment to reflect on what Buffalo has given to world cuisine, and on what it all means to a people yearning to breathe free. Perhaps the actress and comedian Mindy Kaling said it best.
“I have the right,” she once observed, “to life, liberty and chicken wings.”
Cast (in order of appearance):
Dom Bellissimo: David Marciniak
Teressa Bellissimo: Darleen Pickering Hummert
Narrator: Susan Banks
Sound recording: Omar Fetouh (WBFO)
Sound editing: Micheal Peters
Piano theme: Excerpt from “Buffalo City Guards Parade March,” by Francis Johnson (1839)
Performed by Aaron Dai
Produced by the Niagara Frontier Heritage Project
Written by Jeff Z. Klein
Associate producer: Karl-Eric Reif
Special thanks to:
Sound Mods for ambient piano music and sound effects
Brian Meyer, WBFO news director
Omar Fetouh, WBFO assistant news director
Pickering Hummert Casting, 234 Carmel Rd., Buffalo
Webpage written by Jeff Z. Klein (Niagara Frontier Heritage Project)