When I became a Bills fan, I had no idea at the time that I would also unofficially wind up adopting the city of Buffalo. But after so many years of making the trek to Orchard Park, I really couldn’t help but have a soft spot in my heart for the good people of Buffalo. Spending so much time out there, I got to meet a lot of residents of the city and the one thing that you have to respect about Buffalonians is their passion and their general optimism. Buffalo is a city that hasn’t had a lot to be excited about in the last few decades; as the country shifted from an industrial to a service based economy, old cities like Buffalo that relied heavily on factories for their economic development got left in the dust. A once thriving metropolis now has a lot of empty buildings and the region of Western New York is now economically depressed. Add in the cold and the snow and you wouldn’t think that the people of Buffalo have a lot to be excited about. But talk to anyone that resides in or near Buffalo and it will quickly become apparent that they are passionate about two things: the area sports teams and chicken wings.
While the former has not necessarily been a source of joy over the years, the fact that Buffalo, New York is the home of the chicken wing has consistently been something to brag about. It is a source of pride and if you want to really rile up Buffalonians, ask them the best place to get wings. I guarantee you that a spirited debate will ensue. Blood may be shed. Chicken wings are serious business in this part of the country.
It was this type of enthusiasm for the chicken wing that led Matt Reynolds, a native of the Buffalo area, to quit his job as a journalist and set out with a group of friends in search of the perfect Buffalo chicken wing. Over the course of nearly three weeks, his ragtag group of judges traveled 2,627 miles and tried 284 varieties of wings. This quest is the basis of his debut documentary, The Great Chicken Wing Hunt.
Now I am not Buffalo wing purist; in fact, on the occasion that I order wings I tend to get flavored sauces over the basic Buffalo wing. As someone who is a total wimp when it comes to spicy food, I find that it is way too risky to order Buffalo wings; on several occasions, I have been burned (pun intended) when I ordered mild wings that were still too spicy for me. Since every restaurant has a different conception of how spicy various wings should be, I’ve simply decided that it is too unpredictable to risk my delicate palate. Therefore, you are more likely to find me chowing down on honey mustard or garlic parmesan wings than wings coated with the traditional Buffalo sauce.
But that doesn’t mean that I can’t appreciate the search for the perfect Buffalo wing, so when I heard that The Great Chicken Wing Hunt would be playing for one night in Albany, I decided that it would be a good distraction from the bitter cold and a nice way to support a small documentary by a semi-local guy. A lot of other people in the area must have had the same idea, as the film showed to a packed house (who, I am happy to report, did NOT talk during the movie).
The Great Chicken Wing Hunt was a tremendously fun and enjoyable documentary; while the film was ostensively about finding the perfect wing, it was also about the interplay of the various personalities of the hunters and the search for perfection. This was a spectacularly humorous film; I can’t remember the last time I laughed this much watching a documentary. It was certainly funnier that a lot of films that bill themselves as comedies (Delivery Man, I’m looking at you).
The hunters took their search for the perfect wing very seriously and had a very detailed score card that they used to judge the wing on a variety of factors, including sauce, meat, heat and overall flavor. Before setting out on their journey, all the hunters ate and rated a batch of “control wings” that served as a baseline for future evaluation, which made the social scientist part of me very proud. This may have been a somewhat frivolous subject matter, but they did not take their approach lightly. The gang then set out to various restaurants in what they dubbed “the wing belt” – the stretch of New York State from New York City to Buffalo. They tended toward independent restaurants, but chains were not automatically disqualified from consideration. At each restaurant they tried a variety of wings – to be considered a Buffalo wing, it must be a deep-fried unbreaded wing, coated in pepper-vinegar sauce and butter – and then made their rating. The scores of the group were then averaged to reach the final score for the restaurant. For most of their journey, the group ate nothing but chicken wings; they would often visit five restaurants in a day.
While watching people eat wings may not sound exciting, the great cast of characters that are assembled in the film make this a fascinating journey. These are people who know their wings and they are so descriptive in their assessments that you almost feel like you are eating the wings right along with them. Over the course of the film, you get glimpses into the personal lives of the hunters: one is a competitive eater, while another is on the trip as a way to escape the frequent layoffs at his job. All the hunters have some sort of interesting backstory and you learn just enough about them that you are curious for more. The focus is on the wings, but they add their own type of flavor to the film.
The documentary also is about the journey to find the perfect wing and not just about the destination. Along the way, there are some deeper issues raised about if perfection even exists, relationships, nostalgia and American identity. The documentary never gets too heavy nor does it delve too deeply into these larger issues, but these considerations lend some gravitas to what they are doing and make you think. I wasn’t expecting that from a film about chicken wings.
The audience that I saw the film with was great; they were respectful of other movie goers, but there were definite murmurs of recognition at the various restaurants that they stopped at and even occasionally gasps when favorite places did not do as well in the rankings as anticipated. The hunters had stopped in Albany as part of their tour, so of course there was an enthusiastic reaction for that portion of the film. I was surprised to discover that of the restaurants that they tried in Albany, almost all of them were within a three mile radius of my apartment. I have apparently been living in the center of the Albany wing mecca and I had no idea.
After the film there was a Q&A with the director, who proved to be as affable and charming as he was in his film. Usually I hate audience Q&A because the quality of questions is terrible and people tend to ramble on and on, but all of the questions at the screening were well thought out and interesting. Matt gave good answers as well, so the post film discussion actually only increased my enjoyment of the film. That almost never happens. A friend of mine actually won the award for asking the best question, which was a nice bonus (Good job, Deb!)
You can’t watch a documentary about chicken wings and then NOT go get wings afterward, so a group of us followed up the film with a stop at one of the restaurants that was featured in the film (Dorato’s for local peeps). I had actually never even heard of this restaurant prior to the film, despite the closeness to my home, so it was good to give the place a try and I was really hankering for some wings at that point. I don’t know that they were the best wing I ever had – I went with the mild Buffalo wing in the spirit of the film – but they were enjoyable and it was great company, so it was a nice end to the evening. There were several Buffalo natives in the group, so naturally the topic of conversation turned to the Bills. It was probably the most Buffalonian evening that you could have outside of Buffalo.
Some other quick thoughts:
- There was a separate category for “novelty” wings, which derivate from the traditional Buffalo wings formula. During the Q&A I was happy to find out that the Maple Whiskey wings at Bomber’s (a place I frequent and wings that I enjoy) did well in this portion of the competition. Sadly, my favorite wings locally (the “moonshine” wings at Junior’s) were not part of their hunt.
- Unfortunately, one of the places that they tried in Albany is recently closed, so I can’t try their wings. R.I.P., Sutter’s.
- I’ll be very curious to see how this film plays in Rochester and Buffalo, since some local favorites did not do particularly well in the rankings.
- I will never understand people who don’t love blue cheese; to me, that’s a large part of what makes chicken wings great. And don’t even get me started on people who dip their wings in ranch. Savages!
- I’ll admit that I never gave much thought to the invention of the Buffalo wing before this movie; it seems surprising that it was such a relatively recent creation (and that was legendarily born out of accident).
- HA! I cannot think of Buffalo wings without thinking of this scene from Newlyweds: Nick & Jessica. Oh Nick Lachey- you were a saint.
- This hunt was apparently a big deal – they received a lot of media attention and were even on the radio locally – yet I have absolutely no memory of this transpiring.
- Even though I am not a huge fan of Buffalo wings proper, I feel inspired to check out some of the places that were featured in the film next time I’m in Western New York.
I would highly recommend The Great Chicken Wing Hunt; you don’t even need to be a wing enthusiast to enjoy this documentary, thanks to the colorful cast of characters and their dedication to their search. This is easily one of the more entertaining documentaries that I’ve seen and you’ll be surprised how invested you become in their search. I found myself rooting for one particular winner despite the fact that I’ve never tasted their wings. Matt Reynolds and company put together a thoroughly entertaining film; just don’t go see it on an empty stomach.
The Great Chicken Wing Hunt is currently available on iTunes and is playing various cities and festivals. For more information on the film and the restaurants that they went to, check out the documentary’s website.