The wing thing

by Paul Holmes ([email protected]) 176 views 

Remember when your mom or grandmother would cook up the big Sunday dinner that included fried chicken most often sourced from the backyard coop (farm-to-table in the purest sense), mashed potatoes with chicken gravy, green beans seasoned with bacon grease and bacon bits, fresh tomatoes from the garden, hot cornbread, some kind of cake or cobbler, washed down with gallons of iced tea?

It wasnt called sweet tea” because in the South of my youth, there was no other kind. The tea was brewed from teabags, allowed to steep until the proper strength was attained, and then sweetened with who knows how much cane sugar and poured still warm into tall glasses of ice.

I shudder to think now how many calories, fat grams and carbs such a Sunday dinner contained per plateful, but I expect that traditional Sunday dinner would pale in comparison calorically to what many of us enjoyed while watching this years edition of the NFLs Super Bowl. (Incidentally, I think that Mahomes kid has a future. But I digress.)

It is estimated that during the three-hour duration of the game, the 100+ million Americans watching the contest each consumed 2,400 caloriesof food. Add in the pre-game noshing and post-game nibbling plus beverage consumption, and the caloric intake for the day is truly super — about 6,000, or three daysworth by one published estimate.

The National Chicken Council, in its annual Chicken Wing Report, projected that Americans would eat 1.45 billion wings on Super Sunday, an increase of 2%, or 84 million wings, over the amount consumed during the same time last year.

While the Super Bowl weekend may have played havoc temporarily with our efforts to shed those post-Christmas extra pounds, the weekend is helpful to many Arkansans economically.

Lest we forget, Arkansas is among the nations leading producers of poultry, ranking third in the nation in the production of broiler chickens — those chickens raised for their meat. In 2021, Arkansas poultry producers produced nearly 7.5 billion pounds of broiler meat at a value of nearly $4 billion. The Poultry Federation says poultry production is the leading agricultural industry in Arkansas, providing nearly 160,000 jobs and more than $5 billion of the states agricultural cash receipts.

Recall again that traditional Sunday chicken dinner of our youth. The prized pieces of the chicken around our table were the chicken breast and the drumsticks and thighs. Pity the poor family member whose choice came down to plucking his main dish from among the back, neck or wings eschewed by the elders around the table.

But now, the once-humble wing has taken off in terms of popularity, its flight fueled in some measure by the practice of cooks in Buffalo, N.Y., in the 1960s of dunking their fried wings into a hot sauce bath before serving them.

The Wall Street Journals Pervaiz Shallwani, writing for the Off Duty” section of the Journals weekend edition, traces the history of the rise of the chicken wing from its status as a chicken byproduct to a hot commodity in grocery stores and restaurants. Shallwani reports that decades before the advent of the Buffalo style wings, beginning with the Great Migration between 1910 and 1970, Black Americans popularized wings along with other Southern foods in the Northern cities where they settled. In that migration, some six million Black Americans are estimated to have left the rural South for Northern cities, seeking better economic opportunity and escaping Jim Crow oppression.

Shallwani said as demand for whole birds decreased when consumers in the 1970s and 80s sought chicken cut into breasts, thighs and drumsticks, wings became cheap byproducts and money-makers for bars and restaurants. Immigrants, Shallwani wrote, began to put their own spin on the chicken wing. Shallwani cites the example of Snack Bar, a restaurant in Oxford, Miss., where executive chef Vishwesh Bhatt said a competition among members of his fantasy football league gave rise to a new recipe. Everybody in the league was supposed to bring a different kind of wing to the chicken wing challenge, Bhatt told Shallwani. His entry to the challenge was a spicy orange marmalade glazed wing.

Around the country chefs are turning out such dressed-up offerings as a tamarind wing, a wing with yogurt mint sauce and red chili, and a Mexican-style wing with honey mole, citrus and mescal adding to the layers of flavor.

There are several national chains and local restaurants that emphasize chicken wings, with their signature dish being wings spiced to the customersdesired degree of heat.

Virtually everyone I know who knows their way around a grill has an individual twist on the basic chicken wing recipe, though there must be an underlying essence of hot sauce.  Id rather cook them than eat hot wings. I developed my own recipe that does not involve frying the wings, but can absolutely be spiced to your own specs.

Its interesting to think that the once castoff portion of the chicken is now the subject of cook-offs, cookbooks and restaurant themes. Who knew what a vital role Arkansas producers, feed mills, processors and others play in celebrating the Super Bowl?

As the nations third-largest producer of broiler chickens, we can claim a big part of the 1.45 billion wings Americans consumed on Super Bowl Sunday. Any way you cut it, the contribution the poultry industry makes to the Arkansas economy is not chicken feed.

Editor’s note: Paul Holmes is editor-at-large for Northeast Arkansas Talk Business & Politics. He can be reached at [email protected] The opinions expressed are those of the author.