What makes a buffalo wing a buffalo wing?
Nothing puts the “kick” in kick-off like a plate of Buffalo Wings. But not all wings are created equal! Here’s how to tell the difference…
10Best Editors, USA TODAY 10Best
In the city of Buffalo, the Buffalo wing does not exist. There are only wings. And it is a truth universally acknowledged that the wings were born in Buffalo.
Alongside Rick James and the Goo Goo Dolls, the hot wing stands as Buffalo’s most famous export of the past 60 years. On Super Bowl Sunday alone, sticky-fingered Americans might pick clean 1.4 billion of the chicken’s dinkiest, boniest cut.
The wings’ rudiments are by now so well-known to every college-town sports bar they might as well be a natural resource. There are the crispy-fried chicken wings cracked into drumettes and flats, so they look like the limbs of a much smaller bird. The butter and Frank’s Red Hot mixed to the tolerance of each digestive tract. The celery of varying freshness. The gentle fights over blue cheese and ranch.
But the Buffalo wing is still new, dating back only to the 1960s. And its history is far from settled. The wing’s origin is the source of a long-simmering dispute that is barely known outside its city’s limits — part of a very old story about who gets credit in America, and who doesn’t.
In Buffalo, what you believe about the origins of the wing might depend heavily on the side of town where you grew up.
On one hand, there is the tale told all over the world.
This involves an Italian-born couple with the mellifluous names of Frank and Teressa Bellissimo, consummate hosts known for singing to entertain the guests at their decades-old Italian restaurant, Anchor Bar — located on the dividing line between the Black and white sides of segregated Buffalo.
The way the Bellissimos told it, serving a soup-stock part like wings was unthinkable until they thought of it, and the idea arrived with the sort of sudden and accidental inspiration that often crops up in old fish tales about food origins. In 1964, one version of their story goes, their son Dominic arrived at Anchor Bar one fateful Friday night with a pack of friends hungry for something new. His mother obligingly improvised a snack from the materials at hand.
“They looked like chicken wings, a part of the chicken that usually went into the stock pot for soup,” reads the bar’s official history, posted on a placard outside its door. “Teressa had deep fried the wings and flavored them with a secret sauce. The wings were an instant hit.”
Anchor Bar’s wings with spicy orange-red sauce spread across town so quickly that by 1980, when writer Calvin Trillin catalogued the city’s love of wings in the New Yorker, Trillin’s Buffalo friends could not imagine a time when wings weren’t served. Anchor Bar is now a multi-state franchise with bottled sauce sold as far away as Japan, so famous that even Homer Simpson has visited in cartoon form.
Yet, if you ask a Black Buffalonian of a certain age who first got popular selling chicken wings in Buffalo, Anchor Bar is rarely mentioned.
“Anybody that was around back then will tell you that John Young was the originator,” said 74-year-old Theodore Clyburn. When he graduated high school in 1964, Clyburn said, he practically lived on the tangy-sauced wings made by restaurateur John Young, at one of the busiest spots on a bustling Jefferson Avenue that amounted to Black Main Street.
About a mile east of Anchor Bar, Young had been serving whole, breaded wings at events and multiple restaurants on Jefferson since 1961 or even earlier, according to Young’s daughter Lina Brown-Young, multiple former customers, and accounts from Young in the ‘80s and ‘90s.
Those early fans included 82-year-old Ron Duff, of wing chain Duff’s Famous Wings, who said John Young’s wings were his favorite gametime meal after the Bills arrived in 1960 — well before he or the Anchor Bar started serving wings.
“They cost a nickel. And we used to buy a couple hundred of them and take them to the game. So that’s my first introduction, that was at least 1961,” Duff said. “They sold a lot of wings in the Black section forever.”
By the mid-sixties, the wings at John Young’s Wings and Things arrived with a spicy-tangy-sweet orange-red sauce called mombo sauce that former City of Buffalo councilman James Pitts has called the “lip-smacking, liver-quivering sauce (that) titillated our taste buds down to our toes.”
On Buffalo’s predominantly Black East Side in the 1960s, John Young’s name meant wings, Pitts told USA TODAY Network. And you wouldn’t think of wings without thinking of John Young.
But by 1970, after riots and escalating racial tensions, Young moved away from a Buffalo he no longer considered safe. When he returned a decade later, he found a wing-crazy town that had given all credit to Anchor Bar.
“They wouldn’t have dared claim they invented the wing while my father was still around,” Brown-Young said. “They just wouldn’t.”
Young went back into the wing business in Buffalo, and to any local newspaper who would listen, he told his story. He also told it to the New Yorker in 1980.
“I am the true inventor of the Buffalo chicken wing,” he told Buffalo News food critic Janice Okun in 1996, two years before his death. “It hurts me so bad that other people take the credit.”
The fact that Young’s tale is less told than Anchor Bar’s, said Pitts, amounts to a historical wrong.
“If you talk about one of the hallmarks of Buffalo’s cultural contributions when it comes to food, chicken wings, there was an African American man there who — if it was parallel circumstances, or some kind of linear progression — he was doing it on the East Side,” Pitts said. “He was serving up stuff to his community because he couldn’t get to any other community.”
A brief history of the rise of the chicken wing
Young didn’t invent the idea of serving a platter of fried wings, of course. And neither did Anchor Bar. And neither invented the idea of dousing wings in orange-red sauce.
Wings are a long tradition in African American food, such that starting the history of the fried chicken wing with Anchor Bar is a little like starting the history of rock and roll with Elvis.
African Americans in the South had been serving whole fried chicken to their families for generations, according to food historian Adrian Miller, author of “Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time.”
On Sunday fried chicken dinners, the visiting preacher often took the choicest bits of the fried chicken dinner, the “preacher’s parts,” Miller said. Children, last in line, often got wings.
But the food you eat in childhood has a powerful pull. By the 1950s and ‘60s, amid the Great Migration of the postwar years, wings started cropping up as a stand-alone dish at Black-owned restaurants in the North.
John Young was raised as one of 14 children on an Alabama farm before coming to Buffalo as as teen for work. Alongside ribs, Young was already serving his wings by the time he came across a traveling boxer named Sam Anderson. Anderson told him about carryout restaurants in Washington, D.C., who were making money selling wings slathered in a tangy, sweet, spiced tomato-based sauce.
Mumbo sauce, it was called. Sometimes “mambo” or “mombo” or “mumble.” The oldest of these carryouts on record, from 1962, bears much the same name as the one Young founded shortly thereafter: “Wings N Things.”
Even that D.C. wing sauce, still popular at Chinese and Black-owned restaurants, likely has deeper roots. In the 1950s the name was first pinned to Argia B’s Mumbo Sauce, perhaps the most enduring example of an old Chicago barbecue tradition called mild sauce.
When Young concocted his own mombo sauce — eventually adding tropical fruits after a visit to Jamaica — his wings took flight.
“The first day I opened the doors, I realized I had created a monster,” he wrote in a handwritten autobiography left to his daughter. “People came from everywhere in droves to try the wings with the mombo sauce.”
Young served his wings whole, 10 for a dollar in a little cardboard container. He didn’t believe in “tampering” with the wing by cutting it up. And in the Southern tradition, he served them breaded and seasoned so you didn’t need sauce to enjoy them, customer Theodore Clyburn remembered.
“He’d dip them in the sauce, so when they come out they’re smoking,” Clyburn said. “And a lot of people liked them that way. But I said, ‘John, don’t dip them all the way. Just take the tongs and sprinkle the mombo sauce on there.’”
Celebrities from the Buffalo Bills’ Cookie Gilchrist to singers Joe Tex and Rick James were reportedly fans of those wings.
But John Young’s whole and breaded wings were not what Buffalo became known for. No matter how popular, food cooked at Black-owned restaurants in those days was rarely given credit unless it was barbecue, said historian Miller.
As for how Anchor Bar also came to serve wings with a spicy red sauce? Teressa and Frank and Dominic Bellissimo all died decades ago, but they told many competing stories over the years.
According to the version Frank told the New Yorker in 1980, the wings were a mistaken delivery. They’d actually meant to order backs and necks to make spaghetti sauce. Frank asked his wife to make a “more dignified” snack out of the wings that arrived instead.
Maybe she spent the whole night cussing about a mistaken delivery before coming up with the idea all by herself. Or maybe the wings were ordered on purpose after all, for use in stock, and a bigger-than-usual batch of wings made Teressa decide to serve them as a snack.
“The real story,” said Anchor Bar’s current CEO Mark Dempsey, citing the bar’s official history, “is that Teressa and Frank were working in the restaurant one night with their son Dominic… and Dominic went back in the kitchen and asked his mother to, you know, create something a little something different..”
Multiple people who said they attended the first wing feast have told their own versions of the tale, each one a little different.
The Youngs, on the other hand, maintain that no epiphanies or accidents were needed: The Bellissimos knew about wings because John Young was serving them to crowds a mile away.
Young’s widow, Christine, told the Southern Law Review she remembered Frank Bellissimo coming down to the restaurant after hours to jaw about the wings that Young served. Pitts said Bellissimo had come to a dinner where Young was the caterer.
“I don’t know how many occasions my father said, the people who owned the Anchor Bar at the time had visited his restaurant and had his wings,” Brown-Young said.
Longtime Anchor Bar manager Ivano Toscani, who died in 2018, repeatedly disputed that the Youngs could have anything to do with the wings at Anchor, saying all credit was due to Teressa Bellissimo.
Anchor Bar CEO Dempsey said he’s not personally familiar with Young’s story, but honors the many contributions various people have made to wing history over the years.
Whatever happened, the earliest written record of each version of wing is the same year, and it’s not 1964. It’s 1966.
Customer Theodore Clyburn pegs those mombo-sauce wings to the year of his high school graduation in 1964. But Young gave multiple accountings of when each of his restaurants began, and didn’t file for a business license for John Young’s Wings and Things until 1966 — though at the time it was common for small, Black-owned businesses to exist in a legal gray area.
“He didn’t always set things up the right way,” Brown-Young said, simply.
The year 1966 is also the first written record of Anchor Bar selling wings of any kind.
A 1969 Buffalo Courier-Express feature about Anchor Bar didn’t mention wings at all — despite Frank Bellissimo’s later claims they were selling 3,000 pounds of wings a week within a month of first serving them.
But a 1966 advertisement in the Courier-Express, unearthed in the past year by Buffalo History Museum librarian Cynthia Van Ness, does list an unlikely specialty for an Italian restaurant: “barbecued chicken wings”.
Barbecue in the 1960s meant different things to different people, said food historian Miller, including backyard hamburger grill-outs. And store-bought barbecue sauce from companies like Kraft was molasses-sweet.
In the North at that time, barbecue served at restaurants was a predominantly African American tradition.
“At African American restaurants, you would often find a hot option,” Miller said. “That was often a thinner sauce.”
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The form of Anchor Bar’s wings may also have undergone some evolution. In a 1972 article about the newfound mania for wings, Dominic Bellissimo told Buffalo News critic Okun that Anchor Bar’s wings were “baked in a spice bath” and then basted with barbecue sauce.
That surprised Ron Duff. By the time he started serving them at Duff’s in 1969, after learning them from a pizzeria across the street called the Hacienda, the wings that had already spread across the city were deep-fried with Frank’s and butter.
But whatever the competing timelines, and whatever the original sauce and cookery, Anchor Bar’s place in wing history is assured.
The wings that spread like wildfire across Buffalo and then the world — the food that Canada’s Globe and Mail in 1982 called “beer-drinker’s caviar” — were the spicy drums and flats invented at Anchor Bar, served with blue cheese and celery.
And indeed, the Bellissimos’ idea of serving them naked and halved in hot sauce is a significant innovation in a long, mostly Southern and African American history of fried wing.
The revival of John Young’s mombo sauce
John Young had to fight much harder to secure his place in the annals of Buffalo wings, in a yearslong campaign his daughter said took its toll.
His whole, breaded, saucy wings did spread to a number of takeouts on Buffalo’s predominantly Black East Side, many with catchy rhyming names like the Git & Split, the Stop & Cop or A Meal for a Steal. Young’s brother, Paul, owned the last.
But Young’s final restaurant closed in the 1980s, and his brother stopped selling wings in the ‘90s. Mombo sauce disappeared for decades in the Queen City — even as Buffalo-style wings continued their ascendance nationwide. Mombo sauce became just a story people told.
That all changed last year.
Now, if you want to try what may be Buffalo’s original wing sauce, all you’ve got to do is get on a bicycle.
Marc Moscato, founder of tour company Buffalo Bike Tours, learned the story of John Young in 2019 and became obsessed with the idea of reviving mombo sauce.
He haunted the stacks of the Buffalo History Museum library, prompting librarian Van Ness to start a voluminous wing file, tracing the on-again-off-again history of fried wings in Buffalo as far back as an 1857 hotel menu.
Moscato contacted anyone he found on Facebook named Young. He wore out the phone book. Finally, he just got lucky: In honor of Black History Month last year, local reporter Madison Carter interviewed Lina Brown-Young about her father’s wings.
“Every few years,” Brown-Young told us, “somebody calls me up for Black History Month.”
It turned out that Brown-Young was game to make up special batches of mombo sauce as part of a historical wing ride through Buffalo.
This did not come, however, without worries from her mother, who believed her late husband’s years of restaurant toil, and the long struggle to get credit for his wings, had driven him to an early grave. She didn’t want her daughter to suffer the same fate.
When asked to talk about her husband’s wings even so many years later, Christine Young just couldn’t do it.
“When I brought it up, she broke down in tears,” Brown-Young said.
But Brown-Young believes it’s important to pass on her father’s story as he told it to her. “We’ve never stopped trying to keep this story alive,” she said. “I’ve never stopped.”
And so at occasional pop-ups or whenever a group books a wing tour, she makes up a batch of that lava-hot pot of mombo, which she has had to reconstruct in part from her memories of cooking countless batches at her father’s restaurant. And she makes a batch of wings to share.
“There were people waiting in line around the corner for these wings,” Brown-Young told a tour group in September. “These are whole wings, all connected. Not just drums and flats. These are the original wings.”
Before meeting with Brown-Young, the tour had first visited the apartments where Rick James and Aretha Franklin once lived, and pedaled through years of Buffalo civil rights history and the saga of John Young’s various restaurants.
The tour ended at Anchor Bar, where Moscato recounted the Bellissimos’ version of the wing story. But on a tour in August, he wasn’t allowed to finish this tale.
“That’s not true!“ called out a man who happened to be walking past, determined to set the record straight.
“John Young,” he said. “John Young was the first.”
Follow Matthew Korfhage on Twitter: @matthewkorfhage
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