A sure way to mark oneself as an outsider in Buffalo—other than being anything less than extremely nice—is to place an order for buffalo chicken wings. For in Buffalo they are not called buffalo chicken wings. When I took up a stool in Anchor Bar, even the pint of Labatt Blue (a Canadian beer with regional reach) I ordered could not camouflage my outsiderness after I ordered a plate of buffalo chicken wings, and it is thanks only to the fact that the bartender and patrons alike were all extremely nice that I was politely set straight rather than laughed out of the bar. Texas toast is still Texas toast in Texas, and California rolls are California rolls in California, but in Buffalo the pattern does not hold. Perhaps because their provenance is held to be so truly and deeply Buffalonian (a real word); because as a snack, meal, and art form they are held in such high esteem by the people of Buffalo; or because they are so revered as one of that frigid city’s hottest homegrown innovations, in Buffalo, buffalo wings are called, simply, “wings.”
Today Anchor Bar serves up unremarkable pub grub and Italian-American fare, plus a steady cascade of fantastic chicken wings coated in either their famous sauce (hot or cut with butter down to medium or mild) or their spicier “Suicide Sauce,” which is not really all that hot and not nearly as good as the traditional stuff. Almost all buffalo sauce these days is Frank’s RedHot cut with butter, but Anchor Bar has its own recipe, which is noticeably if slightly different and, in my estimation, superior. Anchor also makes its own blue cheese dressing, which is very good indeed.
The place is packed with kitsch. Most of it is typical bar stuff—law enforcement patches, license plates, sports ephemera, random motorcycle-related things, including actual motorcycles somehow attached to the ceiling—but there’s also a small room off to the side where Anchor Bar gear and bottles of its famous house-made Wing Sauce are sold. Next to the little store stands an unsettling life-size statue of either a leather-skinned old woman or a mummy in a maid’s uniform presenting a heaping plate of wings coated in orange sauce with a side of celery and blue cheese. This novelty is often presumed to be the likeness of someone associated with the buffalo wing’s creation. It is not. But just outside the front door is a much humbler wooden statue carved in 2006 of a short woman presenting a bowl of wings who is belatedly getting her due: Teressa Bellissimo.
In 1980, on assignment for The New Yorker, writer Calvin Trillin set out to document the origins of the buffalo chicken wing. In a shockingly short period of time, the bar snack had grown wildly popular across the region, then the country, and eventually the world, becoming the gateway drug that has since seduced many people (including, to name just two, Graham Connolly of LBI Love Potion and Baron Ambrosia) into the world of spicy food. “Since Buffalo chicken wings were invented less than twenty years ago,” Trillin wrote at the time, “I had figured that I would have an easy task compared to, say, a medievalist whose specialty requires him to poke around in thirteenth-century Spain.” Trillin, of course, found the task of tracing the origins of even a famed food to be not quite so easy.
His article was published only a few years after the City of Buffalo issued an official proclamation celebrating Anchor Bar co-owner Frank Bellissimo and declaring July 29, 1977, Chicken Wing Day: “WHEREAS, the success of Mr. Bellissimo’s tasty experiment in 1964 has grown to the point where thousands of pounds of chicken wings are consumed by Buffalonians in restaurants and taverns throughout our city each week…”
The story, as Frank is reported to have consistently told it, is that one day in 1964 a supplier accidentally delivered chicken wings instead of the chicken backs and necks typically used in spaghetti sauce. Frank had the groundbreaking idea to turn the wings, long considered a throwaway part of the bird, into something more dignified than sauce. He asked his wife to do something with the wings, so she chopped them in half, deep fried them, coated them in hot sauce, and presented them with celery and blue cheese salad dressing. Thus the buffalo chicken wing was born.
Frank’s son Dom recounted a different origin story to Trillin, in which on one Friday night in 1964 he thought up the idea to make something special to serve at the stroke of midnight to a group of Catholic patrons who’d been spending a lot of money at the bar and who could, once the day clicked over, quit the traditional Catholic Friday diet of fish. He asked his mom to make a meat snack, so she chopped them in half, et cetera, et cetera, and the buffalo chicken wing was born.
Yet another version of the story has Teressa simply improvising a snack for Dom and his friends on a random late evening. You will note that whichever version of the story you prefer, the only real innovator at work is Teressa, making the city’s 1977 proclamation lauding Frank’s invention a comical—if a little unnerving—artifact of its time.
But contradictory tales about the origins of buffalo wings at Anchor Bar don’t even begin to address the real complexity of the question. Because when it comes to the origins of buffalo chicken wings, we’re confronted with what one might call a rock ‘n’ roll problem; Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper, and Elvis may have taken rock ‘n’ roll to new heights, but those white rockers by no means invented the genre.
While reporting his buffalo wings story, Trillin met a black man named John Young who claimed it was he who by all rights deserved credit for inventing buffalo wings. Young had grown up in Alabama farm country and moved to Buffalo as a teenager, part of the Great Migration of black southerners out of the American South in the mid-20th century. Young said he sold the famed dish out of his restaurant called John Young’s Wings ’n Things from 1964 until he left Buffalo for Decatur, Illinois, in 1970. “If the Anchor Bar was selling chicken wings, nobody in Buffalo knew it then,” Young told Trillin—he’d recently moved back to Buffalo when they spoke. “After I left here, everybody started chicken wings.” Young made the very good point to Trillin that for black Americans, eating chicken wings was no innovation at all. Like most poor, rural people, they had been eating chicken wings—a part of the bird generally discarded by the more affluent—for centuries. Young, who served his wings whole (not chopped in half), said he’d invented a tomato-based condiment called mambo sauce, and his innovation was to put the sauce on his breaded-and-fried wings.
Young died in 1998, but in 2013 Buffalo News columnist Donn Esmonde used his weekly column to solicit help in tracking down any living relatives, and track them down he did. Esmonde’s reporting corroborates much of Young’s story, and he even found relatives of Young serving up chicken wings with mambo sauce in Buffalo out of a restaurant called Taste of Soul. Sadly, Taste of Soul has since closed, and if John Young’s mambo sauce is available at a wings eatery in Buffalo, I haven’t been able to find it, and thus I’ve never tasted it. But I did find someone who has.
Buffalonian Drew Cerza founded the National Buffalo Wing Festival in 2002. In 2007 celebrity chef Bobby Flay challenged Cerza to a chicken wing cook-off throw-down, lost, and dubbed Cerza the “Wing King.” The name stuck, and for good reason. Drew Cerza knows his way around a buffalo wing.
John Young’s daughter Lina Brown-Young is in possession of the old mambo sauce recipe and got in touch with Cerza one day. “She made me a batch,”’ he told me. “It was sweet. More of a sweeter—but a very good sauce.
“A little spicy,” he added.
Pre-order Hot Sauce Nation: America’s Burning Obsession by Denver Nicks today.
Excerpted from Denver Nicks’s Hot Sauce Nation, coming out Oct. 1. © 2016 by Denver Nicks. Used with permission from Chicago Review Press. All rights reserved.