Over a decade ago, I went to my first Buffalo Wing Festival in Buffalo, New York. Hungry Charles Hardy and I spent a half week enjoying the greatest bar food city on the planet. Wednesday at happy hour, everyone left their offices to enjoy $2 Molson Lite and listen to forgotten rock bands (in this case, April Wine). Thursday we hit the Anchor Bar, where in 1964 an Italian woman named Teressa Bellissimo invented the modern day chicken wing when her drunken kids came in late and wanted something to munch on. All she had was chicken parts and tomato sauce but the kids flipped for it. The Anchor Bar serves a larger style chicken wing, so Hungry Charles and I ate history (also a 50 piece bucket). Friday, we heard Joan Jett play a free concert on the Erie Canal and Saturday and Sunday, at the minor league baseball park, we enjoyed the Buffalo Wing Festival and all it's saucy glory.
The notable Bill Murray film, "Osmosis Jones" (far better than "Garfield 2" but no "Quick Change") featured a fictitious wing festival in Buffalo. Local businessman and raconteur Drew Cerza decided the city deserved a real one. Like Clark Kent abandoning his mild mannered disguise, Drew became, "The Wing King" (magenta cape and all) and got local wing places to set up in the outfield of the park showing off their signature sauces. He had cooking competitions (Coondog O'Karma's Pineapple Jerk Chicken Wing was a early winner in the nontraditional category). He had bobbing for wings (folks donned goggles and dunked their heads into a small swimming pool of blue cheese, taking wings out with their teeth and smelling like a dairy farm for three weeks after). He contacted George Shea of the International Federation of Competitive Eating and sanctioned the first World Wing Eating Championship. For wing connoisseurs, the Wing Festival was like nirvana with hot sauce or a Burning Man, but with chickens and less drugs. The festival was a hit and 2013 welcomed its 12th installment.
It is Friday night before Labor Day and I am laboring at my first shift bartending a new joint in the Meatpacking District in NYC. Underfed girls in too tall high heels are shepherded by promoters to the bar because the Gastropub is sandwiched by two night clubs, above and below it. A whole table of male models looks bored and like vampires, while tourists pay $15 for cocktails and look for famous people (all out of town in the Hamptons this weekend). I am making sage daiquiris as the bar manager hates mint. I am not serving boozy manhattans, but girly concoctions, and I realize I may be getting too old to bartend as my back hurts and everyone looks fourteen.
Twelve hours later I am in Buffalo with my college roommate Matt "Ups" Jennings. His nickname comes from his jumping ability, and although Ups is more sedentary as a father of two, he still has a spry step. I rub my sore back as we do more manly activities before noon, than I do all year. Matt and his wife Jen recently bought chickens (fifteen, down to a dozen due to coyotes). Yesterday, after three months of growth and acclimation, the first eggs started dropping. He had a $1000 dollar omelet, but each day the cost will amortize as his chicken can produce 180 eggs a year which he plans on selling to the neighbors. We let the chickens out of the coop, feed them, and then watch the roosters preen and prance. We then drive a tractor and go to a sporting goods store and buy a gun (for coyote deterrence). A mere twelve hours previous, across the bar was a couture wearing priss while today, across the counter a grizzled gun salesman utters, "Here's a pamphlet on gun safety, blah, blah, blah...just sign it and I'll go set the scope for your firearm." With the gun in the trunk of the car we stop at Duff's for some wings and beer. My testosterone levels are higher than they have ever been and there isn't a sage daiquiri in sight. The only thing left on the manly list is too tear into some meat with my bare hands.
As luck would have it, at 6 pm I am at the competitive eating table for Saturday's main event, the buffet bowl. In front of each competitor is a five pound tray containing 2 slices of pepperoni pizza, three beef on wecks (a Buffalo tradition of a roast beef sandwich on a hard roll dipped in it's own au jus), and a mountain of boneless chicken nuggets. The crowd surges forward, the countdown begins, and two minutes later I have the two pieces of pizza down. I am enjoying my third beef on weck two minutes after that, when it is announced that Miki Sudo, the female wonderkind of competitive eating (see my previous post on her kimchi victory) has finished her 5 pounds. Joey Chestnut finishes a minute behind Miki and Sonya Thomas and Michelle Lesco battle for third place. I convince myself that because I spent the day with 12 lovely chickens, I was reticent to eat the nuggets in my tray. Or perhaps the beef on weck was so good; I simply savored it as the clock wound down. The truth might be that like bartending; I may be getting to old for competitive eating...my esophagus muscles becoming recalcitrant and my manual to oral dexterity becoming arthritic.
Luckily, I have the liver of a much younger man and as the social director for the pro-eaters I have the entire field head to Liberty Hound, a bar near two decommissioned cruisers. Liberty Hound is owned by another college friend of mine, Mike Shatzel. Shatzel was a fierce basketball player in college but was kicked out for drinking and fighting. He moved back to Buffalo and took over his father's bar Cole's. In Buffalo, if you can drink and fight really well, it almost makes you the mayor. Cole's is perhaps America's finest bar...all the trophies and softball photos fall off in the 70s, the place has the smell of wood, wings, and stale beer. The clientele has elevated drinking to Olympic levels. Cole's is a like a museum of a great bar that serves drinks in it's lobby...it's old school and modern, rolled in parmesan and baked at 350 degrees. Shatzel did become the unofficial mayor of Buffalo, and as a responsible bar owner (Soon after the success of Cole's he opened his second bar, The Blue Monk bringing Belgium food to Buffalo, but double frying it) the city approached him to open Liberty Hound. All the Major League Eaters are digesting their buffet bowls with Canadian Beer as the Buffalo sun sets au jus, and I realize that this city is a place where one can reinvent oneself - a college brawler can become a model citizen, an all-star hoopster can become a farmer, and perhaps a broken down competitive eater can become a champion once again. Tomorrow is the Buffalo Wing Eating Championship of the World and I intend to wing it!
Crazy Legs Conti can be reached at www.crazylegsconti.com . His apologies to chickens worldwide.