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The wing revolution


It is the height of culinary art, pure dining perfection: the hot wing.
Wikipedia fills in the details on how these little limbs of bliss originated in Buffalo, New York, at a place called the Anchor Bar. Although accounts vary, the basic story is the same. Owner Teressa Bellisimo created the first hot wings in a commercial setting sometime in the late 1960s on a whim to use up a surplus of chicken wings. The wings were fried in oil and then coated with a mixture of butter and Frank’s Red Hot Sauce.
By July 29, 1977– the day the city of Buffalo declared to be Chicken Wing Day– the gastronomic revolution had spread up and down the East Coast and was popping up in major metropolitan areas.
I became a disciple around 1975, the same year President Gerald Ford was almost assassinated... twice. Both attempts happened in California in a three-week period. Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme pulled the trigger on a .45-caliber semi-automatic pistol at close range. Luckily, an alert Secret Service agent grabbed the gun and got the webbing of his thumb under the hammer (later it was learned that no bullet was chambered). Seventeen days later, Sara Jane Moore took aim at him from a crowd across the street with a .38-caliber revolver. She got off two rounds. The first missed Ford’s head by about six inches. Just before firing the second, a retired Marine lunged at her and the shot went wild.
Isn’t it interesting that people thwarted both murders by acting quickly, using their bodies and not guns? Both were subdued at minimum risk to the public. Maybe instead of packing guns, people who want to feel like they are protecting themselves and others should take a self-defense class?
But I digress.
A friend invited me to come with him for this new thing called wings at a bar near my home on the north side of Chicago. It was love at first bite, but as fate would have it, my ardor went unrequited for another decade. In 1976 I joined the Army and served overseas and at Fort Knox for the next four years. Germany had schnitzel; Kentucky, salted ham; neither offered wings.
After getting out of the service, I settled in the Iowa City area, which was bereft of the delicacy at the time. But then, in the middle of the decade, the wing spring dawned on the Hawkeye State, and the tidbits began popping up at various restaurants and bars. Over the years I’ve heard various people claim to have started the revolution in the area, and it’s hard to pin down where the extra spicy spark started. I do know by the late ‘80s several places had joined the movement.
Sluggers, a restaurant opened on the Coralville strip in 1988, served them with a variety of sauces from mild to hot; including the hottest called Ellen’s Way. (Ellen is a close friend of owner/operator Faye Swift, who currently is involved in several area restaurants including Red’s Ale House, Blackstone and Big Grove Brewery). Besides butter and Frank’s, there’s a secret ingredient that Faye swears she’ll never reveal. Whatever, I’ve always considered the Ellen’s Way wings to be the gold standard.
JC’s Café, another Coralville restaurant, joined the insurgency about the same time. Two things came together that year, owner/operator Jack Carlson recalled. Frank’s became available in gallon bottles, and “The Simpsons” debuted on television. Soon the café was running wing night on Sundays after the popular television show. The pricing structure was a bit unusual: $4.95 for all you could eat, but free if you ate 50.
“The secret was to not let them touch your lips,” a fellow traveler recalled. “That and Cuervo, lots of Cuervo.”
I never got mine free; I always lost count.