Saucy, spicy, and totally irresistible, Buffalo wings are the name of the game when it comes to football food. This Super Bowl Sunday alone, Americans are expected to eat over 1.4 billion of the beloved wings, according to the National Chicken Council. But have you ever wondered when Buffalo wings ascended to MVP on the tailgating table? And why they’re even called ‘Buffalo’ wings in the first place?
I’ll tell you now: the name has nothing to do with the animal and everything to do with the city. But the true origins of the buffalo wing are as hotly contested at the wings are hot. Let’s get into it.
The Contested Origins of the Buffalo Wing
According to one origin story, it all started at a bar called the Anchor Bar in Buffalo, N.Y. in the mid 1960s. We know that the owners of this establishment, Teressa and Frank Bellissimo, started selling them one Friday night in 1964, but from there, the story diverges into a few retellings.
One legend has it that the Anchor Bar accidentally got in a shipment of chicken wings instead of the backs and necks they had ordered to make spaghetti sauce. Not wanting to waste them, Teressa came up with the dish as a way to put them to use and make a profit.
Another version of the story posits that Dominic, Teressa and Frank’s son, showed up unexpectedly at the bar late one night asking for a snack for him and some of his friends from college—likely after a night of drinking. Teressa came up with the idea of fried chicken wings to feed them from what they had left in the kitchen.
However, Dominic has a totally different story. In a 1980 interview with the New Yorker, Dominic said, “It was Friday night in the bar and since people were buying a lot of drinks [Frank] wanted to do something nice for them at midnight when the mostly Catholic patrons would be able to eat meat again.” Teressa took the chicken wings left in the kitchen, fried ’em up, tossed them in a red hot sauce, and the rest was history.
Or was it? According to an article in USA Today, John Young, a Black chef also hailing from Buffalo, was all but left out of the story. On the other side of Buffalo—a largely segregated city—Young had been cooking breaded and fried chicken wings for years by the time Anchor Bar laid claim to the dish. Multiple accounts in the article date Young’s wings back to 1960, when the Buffalo Bills were founded as a team in the AFL (American Football League).
Young’s family contends that the Bellissimos, along with other Ron Duff (owner of Anchor Bar’s main competitor, Duff’s Famous Wings) patronized Young’s restaurant, John Young’s Wings ‘n Things.
Young’s wings were served whole with a side of, “spicy-tangy-sweet orange-red sauce called mombo sauce,” while Anchor Bar’s arrived tossed in a red, slightly hot secret sauce. Ultimately, Anchor Bar may have taken inspiration from Young, and the longstanding traditions of the Black community within and beyond Buffalo. But, the Bellissimos cemented their place in wing history by breaking the wings down into flats and drumsticks, tossing them in buttery hot sauce, and serving with Blue cheese dressing, the format we still see most Buffalo wings in today.
When Did Buffalo Wings Go Mainstream?
Buffalo wings stayed a local delicacy in upstate New York until about the late-1970s, early-1980s, when wings began appearing on menus around the country as a popular bar snack. By the early-1980s, chains specializing in wings like Buffalo Wild Wings and Hooters were also popping up. By 1990, McDonald’s had even added Mighty Wings to the menu.
The Buffalo Bills’ winning streak—making it to the Super Bowl four consecutive years in the early 90s—led national chains like Domino’s to take note too, adding them to the menu in 1994. Pizza Hut followed suit the following year.
By the early ’00s, the Buffalo sauce itself—a combination of melted butter and hot pepper sauce (such as Frank’s)—began to eclipse the wing. These days, everything can be buffalo-ed, from cauliflower to calzones, soup to sushi. Wings still reign supreme in the grand scheme of things, but the Buffalo name has become pretty much synonymous with the hot, buttery sauce.
The Bottom Line
Whichever version of the story you believe, there is no denying it all started in Buffalo. And Buffalo is proud of that fact—the city has celebrated Chicken Wing Day every year in July since 1970, throws a National Buffalo Wing Festival, and is even home to the National Buffalo Wing Hall of Flame. These days, the wings will forever be associated with the New York town, even as they have risen to international infamy.