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August 29, 2010

Winging it in Buffalo


            “I look forward to it as much as Christmas,” said my 20 year old son, Andy. What he’s referring to is the National Buffalo Wing Festival, which is held each Labor Day Weekend in downtown Buffalo. While wings are a staple of a college kid’s diet, as Andy can attest to, this festival is something the whole family can enjoy.

            This festival revolves around eating chicken wings, lots of 'em. Last year 40 tons, that's around 700,000 wings, were consumed by about 91,000 people over the course of two days.          

            Over thirty restaurants from all over the country serve up their best wing sauce recipes, including traditional "Buffalo" wings, Cajun, BBQ, and about 100 other styles of wing sauces. This is like the Super Bowl of the chicken wing industry for these restaurants.

             Buffalo wings, deep-fried chicken wings, smothered in hot sauce, served with a side of celery sticks with blue cheese for dipping, all started on a Friday night back in 1964 at Frank and Theresa Bellissimo's Anchor Bar on Main Street, in Buffalo, NY. Their son, Dom, arrived with a bunch of hungry friends. Theresa spotted a plate of chicken wings in the kitchen that were going to be put into the soup pot. She thought they looked too nice for soup, so she deep-fried them, poured some hot sauce over them and served them to the hungry crowd. This new taste sensation was the talk of the town and almost overnight, every bar and restaurant in Buffalo had them on their menu.

            Fast forward almost 40 years. The National Buffalo Wing Festival was actually inspired by the movie, "Osmosis Jones," which featured a junk food addict, played by actor Bill Murray, who was going to the National Chicken Wing Festival in Buffalo, NY. In reality, no such event existed at the time. This made Buffalo News columnist, Donn Esmonde, ponder in his column as to why not? Food promoter, Drew Cerza, now known as the "Wing King," stepped forward and organized the first festival in 2002.

            Since taking the helm of the festival, Cerza has taken the chicken wing to new heights and he has appeared on TV with Bobby Flay, Emeril and Regis. “Doing the shows was cool,” said Cerza.

            “Famous chefs never touched the chicken wing until the wing fest,” added Cerza. “I made the wing fun; it’s a fun food that represents a good time.” He credits Bobby Flay with coining the term “Wing King” and the persona that comes from the title.

            The National Buffalo Wing Festival has grown to be one of the city's more popular summertime events, partly because of shows on the Food Network and the Travel Channel. “People see these shows and book flights here, “said Cerza. At last year’s festival they did a survey to see where people were from. Visitors came from 30 different countries and every state except Arkansas.

            My family feels that Saturday is the most exciting day at the festival. After we have our fill of wings, we find a good spot in front of the stage and get ready for the afternoon's festivities, including the Miss Chicken Wing Pageant, the amateur wing eating contest, the Blue Cheese Bowl, and the climax of the festival, the United States Chicken Wing Eating Championship, sanctioned by the International Federation of Competitive Eating. Competitive eaters from all over the United States come to compete in this event.

            “Competitive eating is a big thing,” said Cerza.  He added that Joey Chestnut, considered to be the best eater in the world, is coming to the wing festival this year. Last year’s winner, 98-pound Sonya Thomas a.k.a. the “Black Widow,” consumed 169 wings in 12 minutes!

            Let me note here that some aspects of this festival are very tongue in cheek; where else would you seen grown men bob for chicken wings in a vat of blue cheese and a 98 pound women wining an eating competition?



If You Go

The National Buffalo Wing Festival is held on the Saturday and Sunday of Labor Day Weekend, September 4-5, 2010. For details visit The festival is held at Coca Cola Field (formerly Dunn Tire Park) 275 Washington Street, Buffalo. Admission is $5, kids 8 and under are free. Food tickets are $1 each. You can buy 3 wings for two tickets. Pizza and additional food items are also available.




Take the NYS Thruway west to exit 53, Route I-190. Take the I-190 to exit 6, turn left on Swan Street at left on Washington Street. There are several parking lots in this area.


More to See

The Anchor Bar, the birthplace of the chicken wing, still serves up the best wings in the city of Buffalo, along with a variety of other menu items. While you're waiting for your food, be sure to check out the autographed celebrity photos on the wall. You can even take home a souvenir of your visit; a T-shirt, hat or even a bottle of hot sauce. The Anchor Bar is located at 1047 Main Street, 716-886-8920;