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Food + Cooking

On a Wing and a Prayer


Let's face it: Along with hamburgers, pizza, and casseroles made from cream of mushroom soup, Buffalo chicken wings are among America's most formidable contributions to world cuisine. I don't mind admitting I love wings, and eat them every chance I get. But like air, wings are everywhere. Why would I try to make them? As a friend and I drank beer and gnawed on avian appendages one afternoon in our favorite bar, he turned to me, wiping his lips delicately with a napkin, and inquired, "Hey Robert, how the hell do they make these things, anyway?" I was momentarily flummoxed. "I'll get back to you," I winked, finishing my beer and scrambling down off the bar stool. I peddled my bike back to my Greenwich Village flat, stopping at supermarkets along the way to look for wings. It turns out that few places in Manhattan—where the so-called supermarkets are the size of postage stamps—carry them. I finally struck pay dirt at a broken-down bodega in a shabby neighborhood, where the smallest package contained 20. Back at home, I googled "Buffalo wings recipe" and received over a million hits. I arbitrarily selected the first and was shocked to learn, aside from the wings and frying oil, the recipe contained only three ingredients: hot sauce, vinegar, and butter. Butter? I guess butter really does make everything better. I dutifully followed the recipe, first frying the wings in peanut oil to brown, crisp perfection. I reached for the Tabasco, found a bottle of white vinegar hiding in the cupboard among umpteen bottles of balsamic, and pulled a block of butter from the fridge.

First following the web recipe exactly, and later adjusting the proportion of the three main ingredients, I discovered that it was hard to control the sourness and heat of the finished product. By the time I'd gotten to the last batch of five, I despaired of producing a perfect wing. Should I be using margarine instead of butter? I finally called a friend who'd attended the State University of New York at Buffalo. "What kind of hot sauce are you using?" she inquired. "Tabasco, of course," I smugly replied. "There's your problem. These aren't Cajun wings, they're Buffalo wings. Use Frank's." It turns out Tabasco is way hotter and more vinegary than Frank's. The comparatively mild Frank's is the favorite in upstate New York (what New York City dwellers call "the rest of the state"). When I gave Frank's a road test the next weekend, everything worked out perfectly: the wings were hot without being offensive, and not too sour. The moral of the story: Never take a recipe's generic ingredients (in this case "hot sauce") for granted.