Winging It

Here's a Super Bowl dish that lets you play with a variety of flavors.

January 22, 2003|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

Anyone with a passing interest in the practice of deep-frying, saucing and consuming chicken wings with celery and blue cheese knows the dish was created in Buffalo, N.Y.

Pinpointing how the Super Bowl and chicken wings have become inextricably linked in the public's mind is another story.

Maybe when Super Bowl M (1,000 for those who can't remember their Roman numerals) rolls around, watching it while munching chicken wings will seem as traditional and patriotic as turkey at Thanksgiving. In the early years of this culinary custom, though, we have no choice but to thank that pilgrim of progress -- Domino's Pizza -- for introducing the notion (at so many million dollars per minute) that savory wings and pigskin championships go hand in hand.

Unless someone has the time to devise a better theory.

John E. Harmon, a geography professor at Central Connecticut State University, once spent a sabbatical researching, among other things, the origin and diffusion of Buffalo wings. His Web site, the Atlas of Popular Culture in the Northeastern United States, includes a carefully footnoted chronology that leads from Buffalo to Hooters and Dubai. Then, Harmon had to go back to work, so the Buffalo trail ends around 1995.

In his history, Harmon cites a 1994 Brandweek article about Domino's purchase of $32 million worth of advertising for its wings to be aired during National Football League games.

The commercial featured a winged buffalo, an early example of computer-enhanced animation in advertising. Harmon theorizes that those ads forged the Super Bowl and wings connection in the minds of millions of viewers, proving yet again the power of wacky animals to sell a product. "I think that had a big impact," he says.

All Ken Brady knows is that Super Bowl Sunday "is by far the busiest day of the year" at the Cluck U franchise in Towson where he is the general manager. In January, Brady typically gets 50 to 100 pre-orders for wings, "sometimes more, depending on who's playing." On the day itself, the phone starts ringing until he has to turn it off.

After a certain point, Brady and his staff stop counting wings per order and go by feel. "We just dump them in the bucket and shake them and get them out as soon as we can. It's an amazing thing to watch. It's awesome."

Last year, Brady says he sold 2,000 pounds of wings on Super Bowl Sunday. And don't think the wholesalers don't know it's a good day. Wing prices will soar at least 15 to 20 cents to $1.10 per pound before the big game, says Brady, who offers 13 kinds of wings, including the popular nuclear and thermonuclear varieties.

Brady remembers when wings cost as little as 30 cents per pound, back when he and his staff had to chop apart the wings themselves. Today, processors pre-cut the wings, which Brady has seen as expensive as $1.59 per pound.

But even if wings, once the throwaway part of the chicken, can now cost more per pound than a whole chicken, they're still cheap and easy enough to prepare so that you can be part of a national pastime with a little effort beyond picking up the phone.

And for those hesitant Super Bowl celebrants who may prefer a little nuance with their brute force, it's comforting to know wings aren't just soaked in buttery hot sauce anymore. Thai, Chinese, Jamaican jerk and Indian-flavored interpretations abound. A recipe for Peking chicken wings can even be found in one of Julia Child's cookbooks.

Much of the credit goes to chicken itself, a bland, blank slate for countless seasoning variations. "Chicken definitely seems to be the universal food in America right now. You can do anything with it," says Warren Belasco, a professor of American studies at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County who has written extensively on food culture.

"A general trend in a lot of foods is for them to become bases for a variety of tastes," Belasco says. It has also happened with noodles, bagels and pizza, for example. "Every cuisine does that to some extent," Belasco says. "But what's unique about America is we tend to make meats the base rather than grains," in large part because this country's relative affluence allows us to do so.

The tastes of those who once chowed down on Buffalo wings in smoky bars have also grown more sophisticated, prompting the demand for advanced wing flavors, says Richard Stuthmann, director of culinary arts at Baltimore International College.

A trend like wings commonly starts in the food-services field, "the great educator of the public in terms of taste," and then it extends to the food processors, supermarkets, theme restaurants and fast-food chains, Belasco says. By the time a craze such as chicken wings reaches places like Kentucky Fried Chicken and McDonald's, it's "really established," he says.

And those who prefer to prepare their wings at home have an expanding repertoire to choose from.

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