Joan Menefee has never been a picky eater. She and her husband live in Menomonie, Wisconsin, where they tend gardens in two counties and eat plums and grapes in public parks.
There is no surer way to make a man self-conscious than to quiz him about his eating habits while he is eating. My friend Justin, however, is apparently immune to impertinent questions.
Every time I see him eating chicken wings, I marvel at his technique and urge others to drop what they are doing and watch. And every time, he politely fields my endless queries, all while moving his fingers swiftly about the wing, like a watchmaker feeling for the spring that will expose the clockworks neatly on the counter.
I should mention that I don’t eat wings; I find the ratio of messiness to flavor unfavorable. Nonetheless, I respect skill in any form that I find it. And Justin is a skillful eater of wings.
Calvin Trillin chronicled the genesis of chicken wings in 1980, and found great cultural richness in this bar-food staple. What most interested me about the dish was the thrift and ingenuity of its inventors. To make wings, you take the part of a chicken many discard and make it the center of attention. Or, as Trillin quotes wing expert Frank Bellissimo: “Anybody can sell steak, but if you can sell the odds and ends of one thing or another, then you’re doing something.”
It’s culinary upcycling, an act of imagination, a way of looking at the world differently.
In that sense, both the invention of Buffalo wings and Justin’s special way with a single meal show me (again) how perception and experience intertwine. So, without further ado, here is my interview with an eater of wings.
Do you have a specific technique that you use to eat chicken wings?
I do. I tend to grasp the wing by the joints and employ a twisting motion to break up their bonds. Once the cartilage has been broken free of the bones, the bones can be cleanly removed from the body of the wing, leaving the cartilage and meat intact. This seems to work better on “dry” wings rather than ones that have been tossed in their sauce, but I’m still reasonably successful on wet ones.
How did you happen upon this technique?
Honestly, trial and error. I enjoy eating things that involve a process, and eating the drummies isn’t as satisfying. The gnawing technique used for drummies isn’t as efficient on wings, and I eventually found that if you’re able to cleanly remove the bones from the wing, leaving it intact, you’re left with a pleasant mouthful that’s good for carrying sauce and fast consumption. I also enjoy the textural component from the cartilage that’s left behind.
What sorts of spices or preparations do you think suit wings best?
I’m a bit of a traditionalist. I prefer the original Buffalo-style wings with blue-cheese dressing. When I’m in the mood for something a bit different, a Jamaican-style jerk sauce is nice. I tend to associate wings with working-class roots, so I think simple, bold flavors that are easy to prepare suit them best.
Could you recommend a beverage pairing for wings?
Beer. Lagers, Pilsners, or ales seem to work best for me. Anyone recommending a wine pairing for wings should probably get slapped.
Is there a seasonal aspect to wing eating?
I was first introduced to wings during football season at an establishment called The Bar in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, so I initially associated them with fall. There’s a certain comfort-food aspect to them; they lend themselves well to shorter days and cooler temperatures. Of course, now I eat them whenever the mood strikes me, and find them particularly tasty on balmy summer nights when the spiciness elicits a pleasant sweating, giving you an excuse to drink another beer.
Describe your bar-fare philosophy.
There’s something really appealing about a simple hamburger and fries with your beer after a day’s work. Bar food has always struck me as working-class food. I also appreciate the communal nature of bar appetizers like wings, jalapeño poppers, and the like. There seems to be a movement toward high-end, “gastropub” bar food that misses the point. To me, bar fare should be simple and pair well with what you’re drinking. And, speaking frankly, it should also pad the stomach to keep you out of trouble.
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