There are many defining factors when it comes to the identity of a place. Topography, history and sports teams are some ways locals feel connected to their hometowns, but nothing taps into the spirit of a place quite like food does.
Food ignites a level of tribalism that doesn't just unite a city, but oftentimes causes controversy, drama and rivalries among the communities of which that dish represents. Wherever there is a legendary local dish, there is history and lore surrounding it.
Pick a place and its food and, sure enough, you'll discover a story that's a load-bearing pillar on which an entire facet of culture is built. And for Buffalo, N.Y., one of those cornerstones of local culture is the story of the Buffalo wing.
Not every piece of fried chicken covered in sauce is a Buffalo wing. The secret is in the sauce – the defining ingredient that sets this wing apart from the rest. Buffalo wing sauce is butter mixed with Frank's RedHot sauce – a simple two-part recipe that results in a complex flavor that's simultaneously spicy and creamy, and has a buttery texture that evenly coats the wings. Its composition may be basic, but Buffalo Wing sauce has come to represent the city of Buffalo in the way that anthems and flags represent nations.
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The Buffalo wing story is as sticky as the dish itself and not as straightforward as many romanticized tales you'll find across the Internet. In Arthur Bovino's book, Buffalo Everything: A Guide to Eating in "The Nickel City", there are almost 100 pages dedicated to its origin story.
Get the recipe: Old School Buffalo Wings »
Most Buffalo wing experts that Bovino included agree that a pivotal moment in the wing's history was one night in 1964 when Teressa Bellissimo of Anchor Bar whipped up a plate of Buffalo wings for her son Dominic and his friends after they went out for an evening of drinking. But how we arrived to that fateful night is a long and windy journey peppered with a century's worth of culinary influences.
"Buffalo's history with wings goes as far back as the mid-1800's," explains Bovino. While researching his book, Bovino came across a menu dated July 1, 1857 from the Clarendon Hotel that made a reference to "chicken wings, fried." And though there was no Frank's RedHot sauce until 1920, Buffalonians were saucing up their wings. You'd find dressings like mashed peas and butter, as well as shellfish veloutée thickened with egg yolks and heavy cream and accented with a bit of lemon juice.
Another important figure who influenced the Buffalo wing is an African-American chef named John Young who was was frying up wings at his restaurant Wings'n Things before Anchor Bar. Fried chicken wings is a standard dish in the African American community, especially in the South where Young had lived before moving to Buffalo.
Young's fried wings are also saucy, coated in a sweet, barbecue-like sauce called "mambo sauce." The main difference, and where traditionalists would argue it's not a true Buffalo wing, is that Young's wings are breaded with sweet sauce as opposed to deep fried without breading and coated in a spicy sauce.
The farther you fall down the rabbit hole, the more variations in styles you'll find with similar wings, and even "mambo sauce" popping up in Washington D.C., Chicago and throughout the American South.
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"So the full story wasn't as much of a eureka moment as we were led to believe," says Bovino. It's more likely that the modern Buffalo wing wasn't a dish made out of the necessity of feeding a group of drunks who stumbled into a bar, nor was it a spur-of-the-moment invention. Instead, it was a dish inspired by a variety of other chicken wings that came before it and Bellissimo, who wanted to put her own spin on the dish, thought carefully and intentionally about how her rendition of the wing could stand out from the rest.
Her own individuality can be seen in how Bellissimo chose Frank's RedHot sauce as the official Buffalo wing sauce. In an interview with Anchor Bar's hot sauce supplier, Bovino says that Bellissimo only picked the sauce based off of its name. "Her husband's name was Frank," explains Bovino, "she walked into the grocery store and picked Frank's RedHot Sauce for no other reason except it had her husband's name on it."
There are plenty of ways food expresses our individuality – Bellissimo's saucy tribute to her husband, Frank, is one of many – and the world of Buffalo wings is more nuanced than just sauce. Buffalo wings are as unique as snowflakes, and if you explore the world of wings deep enough, how a wing is prepared and flavored could lead you back to its bar of origin.
"Buffalonians order their wings with the specificity that some people order their steaks," explains Bovino. "They'll order them extra crispy, extra saucy, extra hot, and they're very passionate about where the best places are for their particular style of wing."
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Over 50 years later, Buffalo wings can be found everywhere; not just in Buffalo, but in bars and restaurants across the country. The flavor has also found its way into other foods like Buffalo chips, Buffalo poutine (thanks to the city's proximity to Canada) and even Buffalo ramen (yes, it exists and you can get it at Sato Ramen). But around upstate New York, the rivalries and arguments that ensue over whose Buffalo wings reign supreme are friendly and in good nature.
"The only real controversy is when places use a butter substitute instead of real butter in the Buffalo wing sauce," says Bovino who recommends that when you visit Buffalo and order wings, you can't go wrong with the real deal served in some of Buffalo's mainstay institutions. Anchor Bar, Duff's and the Nine Eleven Tavern are all excellent places to experience Buffalo Wings.
Even now with the popularity of the Buffalo wing, there are still chefs experimenting with different methods of preparation and flavors. The fried chicken wing is an empty canvas to explore a world of culinary possibility. The Red Sox wing at Wiechec's is a Buffalo wing with garlic and parmesan mixed into the sauce. There's also a double-dipped wing that's fried and then grilled, leveraging a sort of French preparation, at Elmo's Bar and Restaurant.
Regardless of the fact that Buffalo wings can be found almost anywhere in America, Bovino believes it's important for fans of the saucy wings to get them at the source. "There are things that most people don't know about wing-wise in terms of flavoring and preparation," explains Bovino. "Some people believe that every Buffalo wing is made the same way, so you can get great wings outside of Buffalo the same way you can get them there – I would argue that's not true. If you really love Buffalo wings, then you need to experience them in Buffalo."