Picture the Super Bowl. Really, picture any sporting event you’d watch on TV. Now, imagine a food you might enjoy while watching said event. Odds are you’re envisioning a plate of wings.
Since their invention just 56 years ago at The Anchor Bar in Buffalo, New York, chicken wings — more speciﬁcally, Buffalo wings — have become synonymous with the television sports viewing experience. Last year, the National Chicken Council estimated Americans would eat 1.4 billion chicken wings just on Super Bowl Sunday.
But our favorite football snack started out as mere kitchen scraps. In 1964, Teressa Bellissimo, the owner of The Anchor Bar in snowy Buffalo, fried up some chicken wings that usually went in the stock pot as a late-night bite for her son, Dominic, and his friends. To give them a kick, she created a secret spicy sauce to coat the wings. With that ﬁrst batch, history was made. The Anchor Bar added these “Buffalo wings” to the menu, and the handheld bites began spreading to bars across the country.
The rise of the Buffalo wing coincided with the rise of the sports bar throughout the 1970s and ‘80s, as more watering holes began installing multiple TVs and subscribing to cable packages so patrons could spend hours drinking, eating and catching the games. Thus, wings became inextricably linked with sports.
Another key date in Buffalo wing history is 1918, when Louisiana pepper farmer Adam Estillete and spice company owner Jacob Frank ﬁrst created Frank’s RedHot sauce. The mix of cayenne peppers, garlic powder, salt and vinegar would go on to become the primary ingredient in the Bellissimo’s Buffalo sauce recipe. While the Anchor Bar still claims a number of “secret ingredients” in its sauce, the list of ingredients in the bottled version (available for purchase in a reasonable 12-ounce or eye-popping 1-gallon size) includes Frank’s and margarine, a typical component of Buffalo wing sauce.
Buffalo wings didn’t make it to Tampa until 1978, when Bill Frill brought a nearly identical version of the Anchor Bar sauce with him when he relocated to Tampa from Buffalo. He bought the steakhouse on the corner of Dale Mabry Highway and Platt Street and converted it to the Press Box sports bar — the ﬁrst of its kind in Tampa. Naturally, he put his hometown’s most famous bar food on the menu. Customers weren’t quite sure what to think, as this would mark Tampa’s ﬁrst introduction to the dish.
“A lot of people didn’t realize what they were, so he gave them away to customers to try,” says explains Walter Hill, who has been with the Press Box since 1987 and now owns the bar. People got it pretty quickly. “They became a big hit,” Hill adds.
To this day, Frank’s RedHot sauce still makes up the base of the Press Box’s Buffalo wing sauce (the top-seller of their 20-plus chicken wing ﬂavors).
“We’ve tried changing it to different sauces, but the customers prefer Frank’s hot sauce, so that’s what we stick with,” Hill explains. The other keys to a successful wing? Fresh, not frozen chicken, frying the wings for about 15 minutes, and tossing them immediately after so the sauce sticks to the grease. Hill’s team cuts their wings themselves, preferring to leave the tips on the pieces of the wing normally called “ﬂats” (the tips work like handles to help hold onto the wing, Hill explains).
After 42 years, Hill thinks they even have the OG beat.
“I went up to the original Anchor Bar. I had the wings there, and I still think ours are better,” Hill says with a laugh.
While that’s impossible to empirically prove, the Press Box’s wing sales certainly point to Tampa agreeing. According to Hill, the bar goes through 40 cases of wings every week. Each case contains 40 pounds, or roughly 240 individual wings — so that’s about 499,000 wings served a year.
Last Super Bowl Sunday alone, the Press Box kitchen churned out 14,000 wings, mostly for to-go orders that had been rolling in for a week. Takeout wing orders were also what sustained the bar during the worst of the government-mandated shutdowns.
“When we were closed down and doing to-go food only, we sold so many wings that it really didn’t affect us,” Hill explains. “Our regulars kept us open with the orders they did.”
Some of the Press Box regulars include sports stars like Derek Jeter (who mostly does takeout these days when he’s in town, Hill adds), while the notoriety of the wings have even attracted the attention of major celebrities like Clint Eastwood and Justin Bieber.
“He stopped in before he went to his concert. He came in here and sat in one of the booths and ate chicken wings. He was all by himself, he just had two security people with him,” Hill says. “We had no clue he was coming in.” Whether you’re a teen idol, a octogenarian ﬁlm director, or the guy who lives across the street from the Press Box that puts in the same order every day when the bar opens at 11 a.m., there’s something about a crispy, perfectly sauced chicken wing that has a way of bringing very different people together. “It’s an item that’s shareable with people,” Hill notes. “People like ﬁnger foods that are easy to eat.”
Especially while watching a game. Combine wings with two sports teams to root for or against, and a ﬁnal score to celebrate or mourn, and you have yourself a distinctly American tradition.
Does Walter Hill ever think he could get sick of chicken wings? He doesn’t hesitate for a second before shaking his head.
“No,” he says. “No. There are some days I’m sitting there thinking, I’m eating chicken wings again? And it’s like, yeah, I am. But they’re so good.”