The origin story of spicy, saucy chicken wings has more than one hero.
In the 1960s, a Black restaurateur named John Young opened Wings and Things in Buffalo, New York. Around the same time, a white couple named Frank and Teressa Bellissimo began selling chicken wings at the Anchor Bar, about a mile away from Wings and Things. By the 1980s, the Bellissimos had become famous for supposedly inventing Buffalo wings. Yet in recent years, local historians tracing the history of the dish have drawn attention to the contributions of John Young, as well as the cooks who came before him.
The Early Origins of Buffalo Wings
Chicken wings have had a place in both restaurant and home cooking for a long time, around the country and around the globe. In Buffalo, the oldest known establishment to serve chicken wings is the Clarendon Hotel. A copy of the hotel’s menu from July 1, 1857 lists an entree called “Chicken Wings, fried.” In addition to this menu, Cynthia Van Ness, the director of library and archives at The Buffalo History Museum, has also found a recipe for chicken wings in an 1894 issue of the Buffalo Commercial Advertiser.
But chicken wings were not just an entree in Buffalo. By the 1960s, the Black-owned Washington, D.C. restaurant Wings N’ Things was serving chicken wings in mumbo sauce. The sauce, sometimes spelled “mambo” or “mombo,” has roots in Chicago and has since become associated with D.C. The sauce may have also inspired John Young when he began serving wings at his own similarly named restaurant, Wings and Things, in Buffalo in the 1960s.
It’s unclear when Young opened his Buffalo restaurant. Although he applied for a business license for Wings and Things in 1966, interviews with Young and former customers indicate that he likely started selling food under that name before applying for the license to do so. In any case, Young’s restaurant became known for serving breaded, whole wings tossed in Young’s own version of mumbo sauce.
At some point in the mid 1960s, by Frank and Teressa Bellissimo’s telling, their Anchor Bar began serving its own version of chicken wings. Unlike Young’s wings, the Anchor Bar’s chicken wings were fried, broken into pieces and tossed in hot sauce. It is this recipe that today’s Buffalo wings most closely resemble; and as the dish took off in the 1970s and ’80s, it was the Bellissimos who received most of the credit for “inventing” the Buffalo wing.
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Who Gets Credit for Buffalo Wings?
Early media coverage of the Buffalo wing focused on Frank and Teressa Bellissimo. In 1972, a feature in the Buffalo Evening News on the couple highlighted the Buffalo wings they served. After that, the couple received more national press: They were featured in an Associated Press article, on a cooking show and in a Calvin Trillin article published in The New Yorker in 1980.
However, Trillin also interviewed John Young for his story, reporting that Young contested the narrative that the Anchor Bar was the first to sell wings in Buffalo.
Young had moved to Illinois around 1970, and when he returned to Buffalo about a decade later, he was surprised to see how many restaurants were serving what they called “Buffalo wings.” He was also surprised to see that the Anchor Bar had claimed the title of being the first restaurant to serve the wings—especially because he thought that Frank Bellissimo had gotten the idea from him.
“I was selling 5,000 pounds of chicken wings in 1962,” Young told The Courier-Express in a 1981 article. “Mr. Bellissimo used to come into my place and eat my chicken wings.”
Young’s advocacy helped him secure recognition as the first person to open a Buffalo restaurant centered around chicken wings. “He names it Wings and Things, that’s what he specializes in, and I think he absolutely deserves credit for that,” Van Ness says.
In 2020, Young’s daughter Lina Brown-Young began to serve her dad’s chicken wing recipe for Buffalo Bike Tours’ historical “wing ride.” The tour recognizes John Young, who died in 1998, as the “King of Wings.”
READ MORE: Who Invented Chicken Nuggets?
Buffalo Wings Joined Pizza and Became Game-Day Grub
During the 1970s, more restaurants in Buffalo began to serve their own wings. These wings mostly followed the Anchor Bar recipe in that they were fried, broken into pieces and tossed in hot sauce. Frequently, these wings came with sides of bleu cheese dip and celery. But some restaurants found new ways to serve them.
“There was at least one pizzeria—if not more—in Buffalo that began serving wings with their pizzas in the ’70s,” says Brian Hayden, director of communications and community engagement at The Buffalo History Museum. The pairing took off, and today, it’s “extremely popular in Buffalo for a party or a game-day celebration to get both a sheet pizza and an order of wings on the side, too.”
In the 1980s, more restaurants outside Buffalo began to sell their own Buffalo-style wings. The franchise Buffalo Wild Wings, originally named Buffalo Wild Wings & Weck, opened in 1982 in Columbus, Ohio. As Buffalo wings spread throughout the country, they became associated with football—and in particular, the Super Bowl.
This increased demand for chicken wings has come with a serious change in price. Back when the Super Bowl began in 1967, Buffalo wings would’ve been a cheap chicken option for game-day food. Ironically, their growth in popularity since then has turned wings into one of the most expensive and in-demand pieces of chicken.