Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Welcome to Heaven

You know that old Eddie Money tune "Two Tickets to Paradise"?

I always thought Eddie was singing about a metaphor for something else. I mean, seriously, how on Earth could you have a ticket for paradise? Sure, you could have plane tickets to fly to Hawaii or some such desirable location, but is that really worth singing a song about?

This past weekend, I learned that I was wrong. That was no metaphor. And while I had only one in my possession, it was still a ticket to paradise all the same.

Saturday afternoon, driving home from a long few days of work in Toronto, I made a pit-stop in Buffalo to check out the National Buffalo Wing Festival. I'd like to say doing so fulfilled a lifelong dream of mine, but that would be the worst kind of exaggeration. I mean, no one comes out of the womb desiring buffalo wings, and besides, this fest has only been going on since The Wing King created it after being inspired by the plot of ... I swear to god this is true ... Osmosis Jones back in 2002.

So instead of getting so dramatic right off the bat that I lose all credibility, let me simply say that I love buffalo wings.

I don't mean that I like them, that I am partial to them, or that I prefer them to other forms of bar food. I mean that I love them. I totally and absolutely fucking love them.

I once got back together with a girlfriend at the beginning of grad school who had earlier in the day punched me (hard) in the side of the head because she couldn't find her keys simply because, by way of apology, she had my favorite local wing joint deliver me a pre-paid order of wings. I didn't think twice about it.

And that's just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to my love for this greatest of all American inventions.

So, rather than get all hyperbolic, I'll just say that my love for buffalo wings has informed my sincere desire to visit this festival ever since I first learned of its existence.

This year, my 31st on this planet, was the first opportunity I had to do so. What follows is my report from that event.

Most of this report will be photographic in nature. I don't have a lot to say about the festival. Or, rather, I'm still processing the intense emotional response I had to the numerous stridently unbelievable observations I confronted while there.

I will say this - the National Buffalo Wing Festival is a wholly American event. And I don't mean that in some half-assed sardonically anti-American way or a backhanded fat joke. This event is a major spectacle and nowhere in the world does up spectacle like the land of the free and the home of the brave. Furthermore, the whole thing took place in a damn minor league baseball park - what is more American than that?

Everywhere I looked I saw vestiges of our cultural heritage - buffalo wing eating contests broadcast on the jumbotron, a snotty Miss Buffalo Wing walking around smiling and posing for pictures (though she wouldn't pose for mine after I told her it was for a blog called Cleveland Bachelor - even Miss Buffalo Wing has standards), families sat in clumps with their Eddie Bauer travel chairs surrounding their mega-strollers. I could go in. In fact, I might do just that in subsequent paragraphs, but for now, let me say it was distinctly American - all consumption and competition and fun.

To attend the festival, you had to pay $5. That got you a ticket (the one you see pictured above), and then once you entered the stadium and made it past the stage with the Jimmy Buffet cover band and the Buffalo Fire Department's free blood pressure screening booth (oh, sweet irony) you could buy as many $10 sheets of food tickets as you wanted. For 2 tickets, you would get a plate with 3 wings from any one of a couple dozen buffalo wing eateries that had rented space on the infield.

As you might expect, most of these joints were from Buffalo (including the original buffalo wing joint, Anchor Bar), or at least that part of New York state. However, a few tents were occupied by folks that had come quite a distance to have their wing sauces judged by these most dedicated of wing enthusiasts. For example, in addition to four Pennsylvania-based operations, there were restaurants hailing from Maryland, Florida, Wisconsin, and Covington, Louisiana (which incidentally is home to one of CB's many college roommates, this one from a particular semester of mayhem at LSU). There were also a run of franchise and corporate non-New York entities represented, from Pizza Hut's sister operation Wing Street (based in Dallas, TX) to Atlanta-based Wing Zone to PA operation Quaker Steak and Lube.

The fun wasn't limited to just buffalo wings (though that's all I ingested, that and a coke), and a number of non-wing eateries provided buffaloed versions of their specialties, including joints that provided buffalo wing mac & cheese, buffalo kettle corn, buffalo flavored pretzels, and buffalo flavored cheeses, including the best cheese curds I've ever had in my life.

As is my wont, I thought of things in traditional "best of" mode, and while so much of what was available was wonderful, there were a couple of things that separated themselves from the pack. So, in the spirit of awarding prizes, the Cleveland Bachelor Award for Best Wing goes to Harrisburg, PA's Arooga's Grille House & Sports Bar for their awesome Buffalo Bleu wing, while the Cleveland Bachelor Award for Best Concept goes to Salt Lake City, UT's The Wing Coop, which manages to make wings bougie without sacrificing the vital integrity and deliciosity of the dish itself. (And, yes, I just made the word 'deliciosity' up, so it couldn't possibly be spelled incorrectly.)

If I can promise you anything at all in life, dear readers, it is that I will never venture through either Salt Lake City or Harrisburg PA without stopping at these fine establishments, not as long as I shall live and they remain open to serve.

By the time I'd made a couple of treks around the stadium, sampling what I wanted when I could (there seemed to be a couple of choke points in the festival's wing distribution system, which brings with it the threat of tragedy as nearly all of the vendors rely on the festival to provide the wings for them to serve rather than each vendor preparing and cooking their own individual wings). Still, even with the occasional wing shortage, I left with a big belly full, as did many other folks, apparently - this year's festival went through 40 tons of wings, crushing last year's record of 27 tons. Not surprising, I suppose, given the fact that more than 90,000 people came and went over the weekend. (See more post-festival statistics here.)

As far as reporting goes, that's about all I have for you. So, I'll leave you with this: I couldn't be happier that I went to this year's event. It was a lot of fun and the only thing that could improve on it next time around is if a bunch of pals went with me. So, friends of mine that happen to be reading along, feast your eyes on the remaining photos that follow and recognize the one thing they all have in common ... everyone is smiling. This really is the perfect event. In fact, I only have two regrets when it comes to the National Buffalo Wing Festival: that I'd snapped a photo of the "bobbing for wings in a kiddie pool filled with blue cheese dressing" contest (I absolutely shit you not - it was the most sublimely disgusting and delightful event ever) and that I'd have been the first to think of getting married at the festival.


Cookbook said...

This truly IS your opus. Very good write-up! I felt like I was there.

Wow on the picture of the bones and trash on the ground. Yikes.

Toronto realtor said...

your article really brought the atmosphere here and I have really enjoyed the reading. Nice pictures. I love those kind of street food festivals, I always enjoy them. I feel sorry, I could not make it to this one.