Executive Times






2005 Book Reviews


Fried Chicken: An American Story by John T. Edge


Rating: (Mildly Recommended)




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Readers will appreciate that you can find a book about just about anything if you pick up a copy of Fried Chicken by John Edge. Food lovers will appreciate the field work that Edge has done in tracking down truly outstanding chicken. I will admit to arranging some vacation trips around the culinary advice of Calvin Trillin, and just might check out a few of the temples of perfect chicken described in Fried Chicken. Purported to be the first in a series of books about iconic American food, I’m awaiting the volume on mac and cheese, with my Wisconsin map at the ready. Here’s an excerpt, all of Chapter 12, “On the Wings of Mother Teressa,” including the introduction, pp. 115-126:


Chicken Little

Chicken wings came to the fore in the 1980s. Their ar­rival at corner taverns and national chain eateries com­pelled a reexamination of the anatomical composition of what zoologists know as Gallus domesticus.


It was a transitional time in the evolution of chicken ter­minology. The popularity of wishbones—known more often in rural areas as pulleybones, dubbed merrythoughts in England—was on the wane (though the term had yet to be re­signed to recognition as a brand of salad dressing or an offen­sive football formation). For the record, the wishbone is the forked structure in front of the chicken’s breastbone, formed by the fusion of the clavicles. According to widely embraced superstition, when two people tug at the ends of a wishbone, the person who retains the longer piece is granted a wish.


But enough of the old lingo. Buffalo chicken wings de­manded the dissemination of new terms: tips, flats, and drums. Soon we knew that the proper preparation of chicken wings called for the cook to snip off the tips and cut the remain­ing wings into meager-fleshed flats (comprising the ulna and radius) and drums (the meaty humerus). Even if we did not immediately warm to the new terminology, we learned that a flat didn’t taste fine unless you fried it to a crisp, lavished it with hot sauce, and dragged it through a cup of blue cheese dressing.


On the Wings of Mother Teressa

Buffalo, New York is a drinking man’s town. And, despite what detractors will tell you about the year-round threat of blizzards at this outpost on the Canadian border, ice-cold beer seems to be the preferred drink of most Buffalo men. In preparation for my summer sojourn there, I read a number of texts, including Dale Anderson and Bob Ridley’s opus A Beer Drinker’s Guide to Buffalo Bars; Verlyn Klinkenborg’s homage to his father-in-law’s Buffalo tavern, The Last Fine Time; and, more to the point, Calvin Trillin’s New Yorker essay “An Attempt to Com­pile a Short History of the Buffalo Chicken Wing.”

To further get myself in the proper frame of mind, I read each while seated at a bar near my Oxford, Mississippi, home, swilling drafts and snarfing down wing after spicy wing. I ate the chicken in a rather halfhearted stab at research, while I drank the beer to cool the fire and brighten my mood; for I did not begin my examination of Buffalo chicken wings eagerly.

I tried my best to avoid the subject of Buffalo chicken wings. I even pondered a polemic in favor of restoring the beef-on-weck sandwich to its rightful stature as the region’s signature food. The genesis of my plaint was multifaceted. Blame media and menu saturation. Blame my tendency to embrace the singular, the fleeting: to deify the whale-blubber-fried chicken that I have not yet tasted but have heard tell is cooked on the occasion of a full moon, on an oil derrick that straddles the Bering Strait.

But how could I deny that, based upon the parameters set for this book, Buffalo wings are an iconic example of fried chicken? They have a bone. (Flats even have two.) They attain their crunch by way of immersion in roiling oil. And a hell of a lot of people know them as the quintessential bar food.




So it is that I find myself in Buffalo thinking big thoughts like, Who has the right to declare any city to be a capital of any­thing? By my reckoning, it’s an enterprise best left to histori­ans backed by a retinue of fierce graduate students, chamber of commerce types absent any sense of propriety, or interlop­ers like me equipped with nothing save a bit of perspective. Accordingly, it should come as no surprise that, thirty min­utes into my Buffalo expedition, I make the bold decision to enshrine this post-industrial city—along with Nashville, Ten­nessee, and Kansas City, Missouri (about which you will learn more in succeeding chapters)—in my pantheon of fried chicken capitals.

This insight comes to me as I pilot my rental car down a wide Buffalo boulevard, alternately digging into a box of medium-hot wings and wiping excess sauce on my jeans. I pass Duff’s, a onetime Mexican restaurant that switched over from tacos to wings long ago; two Chinese buffeterias that boast strong sub-specialties in teriyaki and barbecue wings; a sandwich shop that, based upon the special that blinks forth from tonight’s menu board, may well do the same; and a hos­pital which, in seeming anticipation of the dawning of the age of the Buffalo chicken wing, installed the first cardiac pacemaker implant in 1960.

When I stop at a traffic light, a Ford with a Domino’s Pizza sign fixed to the roof pulls alongside. It is driven by a kid who—and I swear this is gospel—flicks a wing out his window, watches as it bounces off the blacktop, dabs sauce from his lips with the sleeve of his uniform, and, as the light changes to green, speeds away. Soon after I recover enough to pro­ceed, I look up to see a restaurant sign looming in the dis­tance. The place is called just Pizza, but even these good folks can’t leave well enough alone. According to the advertise­ments blazoned on the front window, they sell wings too.

By the time I reach the Anchor Bar, I have passed more than a dozen chicken wing vendors. I stopped at three, of which Duff’s is my current favorite, if only because they are generous with their blue cheese dressing. I remind myself that I have much further to go, that I’m only at the Anchor Bar to set a sort of baseline for my study of Buffalo wings. But two steps into the vestibule and I’m a goner. Truth be told, I am predisposed to like any place that stakes its reputation for great music on the vocal stylings of a woman named Miss Dodo Greene. What’s more, I did not anticipate the import of treading the same duckboards where a dish was conceived.

Imagine finding the first baker of apple pie. She’s been dead for centuries. How about the first cook to stuff a broiled meat patty between two slices of bread? True believers will still be squabbling over the inventor of the hamburger when the Southern Baptist Convention elects its first openly gay leader. But here, at the 1940 vintage Anchor Bar, a vaguely Italianate warehouse on a forlorn street south of downtown, one can pull up a stool, order a beer, and pay homage to the maker amidst the trappings of a true cathedral of creation.




I did not arrive in Buffalo unawares My readings and forty years of pop acculturation, had equipped me with the ba­sics, the tenets of the chicken wing catechism as handed down by the Bellissimo family, longtime proprietors of the Anchor Bar. I knew that, among aficionados, there is little to no squabbling over the year, 1964, in which Buffalo chicken wings were conceived. But I also knew that devotees tell a number of contradictory stories of the evening in question. The two most often cited are these:


·      Teressa Bellissimo invented Buffalo chicken wings when her son Dominic and a cadre of friends came by the bar in search of a late-night snack. Teressa rescued a mess of wings intended for the stockpot, cut them in half, cooked them to a crisp, and sprinkled the wings with hot sauce before serving them with a bowl of blue cheese dressing and a few strips of celery swiped from an antipasto platter.

·      The impetus was the Catholic prohibition against eating meat on Friday. As the clock inched toward midnight on a Friday, Dominic asked his mother to prepare something special for the Saturday-morning revelers. Again she crisped said wings and swiped said celery and added a monkey bowl of blue cheese for good measure.



I also knew that there exists an heretical story that does not involve Teressa Bellissimo. Among certain hard-shell Anchor Bar devotees, the claim of primacy by John Young, onetime proprietor of a Buffalo take-away shop called Wings ‘n’ Things, stirs the same sort of ire that tales of Sally Hemings’s lineage precipitate among myopic descendants of Thomas Jefferson.

Many serious eaters dismiss his claim when they learn that Young neither clipped nor disjointed his wings, that he had the audacity to batter them before frying, and that his hot sauce (known to patrons as mambo sauce) was based upon a honey-mustard-cayenne mix instead of a margarine-cayenne blend. Those inconsistencies did not stop me, however, from driving seventy-five miles from Buffalo to Rochester, search­ing for an analogue to Wings ‘n’ Things in the locally revered mini-chain known as Sal’s Birdland. What’s more, Young’s tale later compelled a visit to Washington, D.C., where Buf­falo newspaperwoman Janice Okun reported that Young got the idea for mambo sauce. To this day, D.C. take-aways like Yum’s serve mambo-drenched wings to the demimonde. But I digressed then, and I digress now.




The decor of the Anchor Bar calls to mind an Antiques Roadshow prop room overseen by a drunk with impecca­ble taste in late-twentieth-century detritus. Unlike bars where the manager hangs a red wagon and a rusted Coca-Cola sign from the ceiling in an attempt to create what his franchise manual terms “a mood,” the Anchor Bar comes by it honestly with castoff softball trophies, Statue of Liberty sculptures, crab traps, and out-of-state license plates.


Ivano Toscano occupies a stool in the corner. He is a pug of a man, a first-generation immigrant who was born in Italy and made his way here after falling for a Yugoslavian beauty he met at a nudist beach. Ivano wears a watch fashioned from gold nuggets; his shirt pocket sports a cellophane-wrapped cigar. With the death of Frank and Teressa Bellisimo and the retirement of subsequent Anchor Bar scions, he is the major­domo of wingdom.


We shake hands, and I brace for the onslaught. I expect Ivano to loose a harangue on the virtues of Anchor Bar chicken wings. But he is mercifully free of any predilection to speechify, and I don’t risk my luck by prodding.


Instead, I follow his lead and order a beer. And then an­other. We talk of chicken wings now and again, but we also talk of politics and women and baseball. It’s late afternoon, and the pace of the bar quickens. Ivano watches the door, and I watch the crowd, my eyes alert, my pen at the ready. I’m intent upon recording for posterity one of those vignettes which, in the retelling, allow a writer to encapsulate the whole of an experience.


No such vignettes present themselves. I order a basket of hot wings. And I ponder a number of questions: Is this the first food of mass appeal invented in the television age? Is this the sole dish of the twentieth century that has its origins in offal? But I do not break the spell by asking these questions of Ivan. Instead, I eat my basket of hot wings. The vapors swirling upward from the pile tickle and then inflame my nostrils. The wings taste no better, no worse, than any of the others I will eat over the next few days.


Ivano and I order another beer. High on the barback, I spy a miniature chicken bucket filled with the plastic chits and playing cards necessary to play a round of what was once heralded as the country’s newest game sensation, the Buffalo-Style Chicken Game. Behind me, I hear one fellow exclaim to his barmate, “Hey, that guy has a pad and pen—I wonder if he works for the TV station.” On the far wall, I glimpse an oil por­trait of the Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci.


When I rise to depart for the bathroom, Ivano stands too. He has caught sight of a development that requires his atten­tion. In his left hand he now holds a cordless power drill, out­fitted with a Phillips-head screwdriver. A man walks toward him, bearing a Wisconsin license plate. The man is positively radiant. He appears to be a pilgrim like me, overjoyed at the prospect of being in the very spot where the chicken wing was invented. On second thought, maybe, like me, he’s just drunk. I cannot understand a word he says, but Ivano can. And as the man prattles on in Italian, Ivano screws his car tag to a place of honor alongside the waitress station.


Buffalo Wings (Prepared in an Almost Reverential Manner) BUFFALO, NEW YORK

Local lore holds that Teressa Bellissimo originally crisped her wings in an oven. Lucky she switched to the deep-fryer~ or she would have never made this book. Worshipers at the church of the Anchor will damn my cornstarch crust as heretical, but it improves the all-important crunch. Speaking of which, to maintain that crunch, do not toss wings with the hot sauce until serving.



24 chicken wings (about 4 pounds), tips removed and remaining wings separated into drums and flats

¼ cup cornstarch

¼ cup all-purpose flour

2 tablespoons black pepper

1 tablespoon paprika (the hot kind, if you can find it)

Peanut oil

¼ stick butter

1 clove garlic, minced

½ cup Louisiana brand hot sauce (or any viscous hot sauce)


Mix cornstarch, flour, pepper, and paprika in a paper bag. Toss in wings 6 at a time and shake to coat evenly. Pour oil in a deep and heavy pot to a depth of 3 inches. Heat oil to 350°. Fry the wings in batches of 6 or 8 or so until firm, approximately 8 minutes. They may still be a bit blond, but their edges will be russet. Skein wings from oil and place on wire rack to drain. Place butter and garlic in metal bowl; pour the hot sauce over and heat over low until the butter melts and the sauce is combined. Toss wings in the bowl to coat, and remove with a skein. Serve with celery sticks and a dressing of blue cheese mixed with sour cream, a bit of chopped garlic, and a splash of aromatic vinegar. Serves 6 as an appetizer or 2 as a snack with beer.


Whether you use the recipes or enjoy the American stories in Fried Chicken, this book will be interesting to both foodies and travelers. My next trip to Buffalo is scheduled for July. I can almost taste it, and leg it to the Anchor bar for a few wings. I doubt, though, that the iconic American food series will ever devote a volume to beef on weck, and that’s really my favorite Buffalo food.


Steve Hopkins, May 25, 2005



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the June 2005 issue of Executive Times


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