I spent some time last week researching the history of the chicken wing and sports fans for this week's full review on Wing Wings in the Lower Haight, purveyor of lightly fried wings in all manner of delicious sauces. Of course I started with Calvin Trillin's seminal New Yorker piece from 1980, "An Attempt to Compile a Short History of the Buffalo Chicken Wing," which was every bit as funny and informative as I remembered.
(If you aren't familiar with Trillin, here's a sample sentence to pique your appetite: "The next morning, I got out my preliminary research notes for analysis. They amounted to three sentences I was unable to make out, plus what appeared to be a chicken-wing stain.")
Deep-friend wings have always been eaten in the South, but the invention of the buffalo wing is widely credited to the Anchor Tavern in Buffalo, New York, where, as the story goes, owner Teresa Bellissimo thought to chop a wing in half, fry it, coat it in the spicy sauce, and serve it with a blue cheese dressing and celery sticks. That was 1964. What I couldn't figure out was how and when the humble chicken wing made the leap from upstate New York bar food to the favorite game-day snack of football fans everywhere.
So I turned to the National Chicken Council, an organization that keeps track of such things as the number of chicken wing portions consumed on Super Bowl Sunday (1.25 billion in 2012).
According to the NCC, the rise of the chicken wing all had to do with timing. Cooking the whole bird was in vogue in the sixties and seventies, but in the eighties U.S. consumers started preferring boneless-skinless white meat, and wings became an inexpensive byproduct for companies packaging chicken breasts. Bars realized they could charge low prices for the relatively cheap protein, plus, due to the spicy/salty nature of the sauce, they discovered that beer sales would go through the roof when customers ate wings.
At the same time, sports bars with multiple TVs were becoming more and more common in America thanks to rapidly developing technology -- and the most popular sporting event to watch with friends in bars is football. Wings were an easily shareable, kinda macho appetizer. The trend was solidified in 1990, when McDonald's added Mighty Wings to its menu. KFC and Domino's Pizza followed suit, and the chicken wing became the beloved bar snack it is today.