What Are Buffalo Wings?

Buffalo chicken wings

The Spruce

Buffalo wings, that ever-popular dish consisting of deep-fried chicken wings, slathered in spicy sauce and served with blue cheese dressing and raw celery and carrots, are one of those few lucky foods that are famous enough to boast their very own creation myth.

According to that myth, the origin of chicken wings as a popular food in the United States is attributed to a restaurant in Buffalo, NY, in the early 1960s, which is what gives them the name "buffalo wings."

This myth even goes so far as to identify the precise individual, a certain Teressa Bellissimo, proprietor of the Anchor Bar in Buffalo, NY, who, in 1964 (as the story goes) first thought of serving chicken wings to bar patrons.

It's a pretty story. But the development of a cuisine is almost never the result of a single person having an idea, but rather, the result of slow and steady forces of history, culture, demographics and economics.

Spicy Wings Were Born in...Chicago?

Indeed, the reality is that chicken wings as we currently eat them, including the spicy sauce, probably originated in Chicago, which through the early and middle part of the 20th century was the biggest meatpacking hub in North America. 

But the origins of chicken wings as food, as least in North America, is part of the long tradition of slow-cooking cheap cuts of meat and poultry and serving it with a spicy seasoning or sauce. Also known as barbecue, this tradition is as old as America, and dates to the time of slavery, which means it originates in the South (by way of the West Indies). 

Likewise the tradition of fried chicken, another mainstay of southern cooking which itself has its roots in West African cuisine.

Enter the Great Migration

In the decades following the Civil War, when millions of African Americans moved from the south to the north in what's called the Great Migration, they brought their culinary traditions with them. One of the biggest beneficiaries of this migration, which is commonly reckoned to have begun around 1916, was the city of Chicago. 

Because it was the main meatpacking hub, Chicago offered plenty of jobs. Kansas City and St. Louis, which also had large meatpacking industries, were also major destinations of the Migration.

And since slaughterhouses had no use for chicken wings, to the point where they were literally discarded, it was only natural for the African Americans, who brought their culinary traditions of barbecue and fried chicken from the south to the north, to utilize this extremely plentiful, nearly free ingredient.

Thus it's the collision of these two forces—the massive migration of African Americans to meatpacking cities like Chicago, Kansas City and St. Louis, along with the plentiful supply of cheap chicken wings provided by the meat processing plants there—that made the popularization of chicken wings possible.

Next Up: The Chicago Speakeasy

But how did chicken wings become pub food? To explain that, we come to the next element to the story, and that is prohibition. From 1920 to 1933, sale and consumption of alcohol was prohibited in the U.S., which led to the proliferation of illicit establishments called speakeasies, of which Chicago alone boasted as many as 10,000 by 1930.

Many of these establishments advertised "free lunch." The deal was, the food was free, but you paid for your drinks. And what kind of food? Common offerings included foods like deviled eggs, salted nuts and and yes, chicken wings. 

Indeed, the popularity of so-called "finger food" in America stems from this period. Before that, the upper classes might enjoy canapés at cocktail parties, but only with prohibition did pairing finger food with booze become popular with ordinary folks. 

The Final Touch: Spicy Mumbo Sauce

But what about the spicy sauce? How did that come about? Surely at least that can be attributed to Teressa from Buffalo?

Alas, no. It seems that the tradition of pairing chicken wings with spicy sauce also originates in Chicago. The most famous example is called Mumbo sauce (sometimes referred to as Mambo sauce). Originally developed as a barbecue sauce at a Chicago rib joint called Argia B's, and later bottled and sold to customers, Mumbo sauce, a blend of ketchup, vinegar, sugar and red pepper, has been a mainstay of Chicago-style chicken wings since at least 1957. 

Now, it's possible that the popularity of buffalo wings specifically as a Super Bowl snack may have originated in Buffalo, due to that city's football team, which won AFL titles in 1964 and '65. This coincides nicely with the Anchor Bar's claim that they invented the dish in 1964. 

And there seems no reason to dispute the Anchor Bar's claim that they were the first to serve chicken wings with blue cheese dressing and celery. And why not? After all, sometimes a pretty story turns out to be true—at least in part.