My first experience with chicken wings (Buffalonians will NEVER refer to chicken wings as “Buffalo wings,” they’re just “wings” or “chicken wings” in a formal setting) in Chicago was a nightmare I couldn’t wake up from.
I had journeyed up to a nice drinking hole in Wrigleyville where they sold chicken wings for a quarter every Monday, except those Mondays when the Cubs were playing home games. But it was February, so I wouldn’t have to worry about the Cubs for another month.
First of all, a single order of wings in Chicago is apparently just eight wings, not ten. I can only wonder what double and triple orders in Chicago are. But missing two wings from my single order was nothing compared to being asked what kind of sauce I wanted on my wings. I literally swallowed a scream, staring blankly for about ten straight seconds before choking out the phrase “What are my options?” After the bartender read off a list of sauces, I reluctantly ordered the buffalo sauce. It seemed to make sense because these were, after all, buffalo wings. After awhile, I was treated to a basket of wings which were about the size of my thumb.
The bar I was in had notably been given an award for the best wings in Chicago.
I had no clue how to order chicken wings. In Buffalo, ordering chicken wings is a three-word phrase before the waiter or bartender smiles, nods, and walks away to deliver the order. The three words are the size of the order, how hot you want it, and the word “wings.” My family typically ordered by saying “double wings hot.” It’s given a bit of variety by the size and heat: Triple mild wings means you want a triple order of chicken wings with a mild sauce. Wings, medium single means a single order with a sauce that has a kick but won’t burn your tongue out. The wings themselves are considerably bigger than your thumb. In some of the more popular spots – like the Anchor Bar, their birthplace – they can be the size of your fist.
I’m not complaining about something one city does well that the other doesn’t today. I’m only explaining a small difference in the food culture, but one that becomes important if you’re from Buffalo. Chicago sees chicken wings as just another bar food to munch on while the Bears beat whatever unlucky team they’re up against this week into the turf. In Buffalo, however, a Chicago native might be surprised at the elevated spot Buffalo culture holds for these simple treats.
Chicken wings in Buffalo are serious business. People are capable of holding long, drawn out arguments over the best places to go for wings. We argue the best way to cook them, the best sauces to use, the best way to reheat the leftovers. We argue about the best foods and beers that go with chicken wings. (Duff’s, the Anchor Bar, Just Pizza, and La Nova are frequently mentioned in fights over the best wing makers.) It is Buffalo, after all, which is the home of the annual National Buffalo Wing Festival, which draws chicken wing makers from all 50 states and 34 different countries. A funny note about the Festival is that it only began in 2002, after being inspired by the 1999 movie Osmosis Jones. In the movie, Bill Murray boasts about having tickets to Buffalo for a chicken wing festival. That’s right – the chicken wing is so much a part of the local culture that the city took it for granted, blindly overlooking a fantastic tourist festival idea until someone saw a children’s movie and asked “Hey, why isn’t there an actual festival for chicken wings?”
Chicken wings are very rarely eaten as appetizers or snacks. Most of the time, we order them alongside a pizza because they go together so well, with a good beer on the side. Wings in Buffalo are part of the cultural lifeblood, and the people won’t have it any other way. We love our wings, we’re happy to show them off, and a traveler from Chicago might be shocked at the number of suggestions he receives when he asks about a good wing joint.
When ordering chicken wings in Buffalo, stick with the three-word phrase I taught above. If you ask for “Buffalo” wings, the server will look at you like you’re nuts. The Buffalo Wings were a professional roller hockey team housed in HSBC Arena in 1999.