January 30, 2018

"ANYBODY CAN SELL STEAK":

AN ATTEMPT TO COMPILE A SHORT HISTORY OF THE BUFFALO CHICKEN WING (Calvin Trillin, 8/25/80, The New Yorker)

Fortunately, the actual moment that Buffalo chicken wings were invented has been described by Frank Bellissimo and his son, Dom, with the sort of rich detail that any historian would value; unfortunately, they use different details. Frank Bellissimo is in his eighties now, and more or less retired; he and his wife, Teressa, are pretty much confined to an apartment above the Anchor Bar. According to the account he has given many times over the years, the invention of the Buffalo chicken wing came about because of a mistake--the delivery of some chicken wings instead of the backs and necks that were ordinarily used in making spaghetti sauce. Frank Bellissimo thought it was a shame to use the wings for sauce. "They were looking at you, like saying, 'I don't belong in the sauce,' " he has often recalled. He implored his wife, who was doing the cooking, to figure out some more dignified end for the wings. Teressa Bellissimo decided to make some hors d'oeuvres for the bar--and the Buffalo chicken wing was born.

Dom Bellissimo--a short, effusive man who now acts as the bustling host of the Anchor Bar--tells a story that does not include a mistaken delivery or, for that matter, Frank Bellissimo. According to Dom, it was late on a Friday night in 1964, a time when Roman Catholics still confined themselves to fish and vegetables on Fridays. He was tending the bar. Some regulars had been spending a lot of money, and Dom asked his mother to make something special to pass around gratis at the stroke of midnight. Teressa Bellissimo picked up some chicken wings--parts of a chicken that most people do not consider even good enough to give away to barflies--and the Buffalo chicken wing was born.

Dom and Frank agree that Teressa Bellissimo chopped each wing in half and served two straight sections that the regulars at the bar could eat with their fingers. (The two straight pieces, one of which looks like a miniature drumstick and is known locally as a drumette, became one of the major characteristics of the dish; in Buffalo, a plate of wings does not look like a plate of wings but like an order of fried chicken that has, for some reason, been reduced drastically in scale.) She "deep-fried" them, applied some hot sauce, and served them on a plate that included some celery from the Anchor Bar's regular antipasto and some of the blue-cheese dressing normally used as the house dressing for salads. Dom and Frank also agree that the wings were an immediate success--famous throughout Buffalo within weeks. Before long, they say, chicken wings were on the dinner menu instead of being served gratis at the bar--and were beginning to nudge aside the Italian food that had always been the Anchor Bar's specialty. In the clipping libraries of the Buffalo newspapers, I could find only one article that dealt with the Bellissimo family and their restaurant in that period--a long piece on Frank and Teressa in the Courier-Express in 1969, five years after the invention of the chicken wing. It talks a lot about the musicians who had appeared at the Bellissimos' restaurant over the years and about the entertainers who used to drop in after road shows. It mentions the custom Teressa and Frank had in times gone by of offering a few songs themselves late on Saturday night--Teressa emerging from the kitchen to belt out ''Oh Marie" or "Tell Me That You Love Me." It does not mention chicken wings. Perhaps the interviewer simply happened to be more interested in jazz drummers than tasty experiments. Perhaps Frank and Dom Bellissimo are, like most people, funny on dates. By chance, my most trusted contemporary observers, the Katzes, were living out of the city during the crucial period; Linda Katz looked surprised to hear that there had ever been a time when people did not eat chicken wings. The exact date of the discovery seemed a small matter, though, compared to the central historical fact, common to both Bellissimo stories, that the first plate of Buffalo chicken wings emerged from the kitchen of the Anchor Bar. It seemed to me that if a pack of revisionist historians descended on Buffalo, itching to get their hands on some piece of conventional wisdom, they would have no serious quarrel with the basic story of how the Buffalo chicken wing was invented--although the feminists among them might point out that the City of Buffalo's proclamation would have been more exact if it had named as the inventor Teressa Bellissimo. The inventor of the airplane, after all, was not the person who told Wilbur and Orville Wright that it might he nice to have a machine that could fly.

"A blue-collar dish for a blue-collar town," one of the Buffalonians who joined the Katz family and me on our chicken-wing tour said, reminding me that historians are obligated to put events in the context of their setting. Buffalo does have the reputation of being a blue-collar town and, particularly after the extraordinary winter in 1977, of being a blue-collar town permanently white with snow. Buffalonians who do much travelling have resigned themselves to the fact that the standard response to hearing that someone comes from Buffalo is a Polish joke or some line like "Has the snow melted yet?" Buffalo has always had a civic-morale problem. Could the problem have been exacerbated by making a local specialty out of a part of the chicken that somebody in San Francisco or Houston might throw away? Frank Bellissimo seemed to argue against that interpretation. "Anybody can sell steak," he told me. "But if you can sell odds and ends of one thing or another, then you're doing something." The celebrated visitors who troop through the Anchor Bar are, after all, almost always favorably impressed by Buffalo chicken wings. Craig Claiborne proclaimed them "excellent" in one of his columns--although he may have undercut the compliment a bit by saying in the same paragraph that he had remained in Buffalo for only three hours.

Posted by at January 30, 2018 5:18 AM

  

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