Ed’s Low-Down on Buffalo Wings

Much like the ubiquitous pork belly, which seems to find its way onto every upscale menu at an exorbitant price these days, chicken wings were once considered very much a poor man’s pick when it came to buying meat. Wings then more often than not found their way into a stock pot, but sometime in the late 1970s, a wings recipe came out of Buffalo that took the nation by storm and has become a staple. Nowadays, chicken wings cost more than any other cut of chicken in the supermarket, and more than most beef or pork; $3.10 a pound today in my local meat department. I’ve known Ed Komara, a native of Buffalo, for a very long time, ever since he was the curator of the Blues Archive at the University of Mississippi, so I asked him to give me his low-down on chicken wings, and here it is, in 7 points (no less):

REAL Buffalo wings are not battered, but rather deep-fried as-is. After frying, the wings are then shaken in a container with butter (or margarine) and hot sauce (in the cheap places, usually Frank’s Hot Sauce).

  1. The main effect of a true Buffalo wing is the immediate sharpness of the spicy heat, then a quick lowering of that spice.
  2. By contrast, the Rochester, NY version is battered and deep-fried, so as to hold more of the hot sauce (in a sticky/honey sort of variant) and make the spicy burn last for a long time in one’s mouth. (This is especially true of the wings made at Country Sweet in Rochester).
  3. In Buffalo, historically speaking, there are two main places for wings: the Anchor Bar, and Duff’s. The Anchor Bar was where wings were first served in 1964, to the owner’s son and friends as late-night munchies. The bar is located near the Allen Street, aka “Allentown” which is the bohemian arts section of the city. By 1990 when I went there, the “bar” became more like a restaurant serving some killer Italian food (including the richest pizza I’ve ever tried).
  4. Duff’s began offering wings in 1969. It is located conveniently on Sheridan Drive (on the cusp of city and suburb) for those who don’t really want to go all the way to Allentown for the Anchor Bar.
  5. There may be a missing link between the Anchor Bar and Duff’s. My dad remembered sometime in the 1960s that a couple of Buffalo Bills football players were partners in a chicken wing stand that brought wings to city pop-culture attention beyond the Anchor Bar. But I haven’t seen that documented anywhere.
  6. I don’t know where the heck the idea of including celery and blue cheese dressing with wings came from or why. It’s as gratuitous as applesauce with potato pancakes.

“Wing stands are pretty common in Buffalo,” Ed says. “Much less often seen are places serving beef on weck, the other distinctive Buffalo bar food. The ‘weck is short for kummelweck (or as the locals pronounce it, “kimelwick”), which is a salty bun. The one place among my haunts that served it was Anacone’s Inn (now closed, alas), which always seemed to have run out of beef on weck every time I arrived there (usually at 1 a.m.).

Here is the original recipe. Joint the wings, (discard the tips) then pat dry (IMPORTANT!) and deep-fry them until crispy. Toss in the sauce while hot. I used Crystal and butter.  They’re superb.

8 tablespoons hot sauce (Frank’s or Crystal recommended)
8 tablespoons unsalted butter or margarine
1 1/2 tablespoons white vinegar
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/8 teaspoon garlic powder
1/2 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
salt to taste

 

Sweet Soy Chops

Brush bone-in center cut pork chops with a mixture of lite soy, light Karo and vegetable oil in equal amounts. Grill at very high heat.

 

Hood

The heat in the room was stifling, and the smell of stale incense, feces and decay as well as something sharp and acidic was overpowering. If it weren’t for the open window in the back of the room, Hugh knew that a thick haze of stench would have kept them out until a fan had been brought in. As it was he felt nauseous.

“He’s over here, Hugh,” said Derek, the patrolman who found the body late that morning. He pointed to an overturned chair that once faced a computer desk. The screen glowed with the image of a rapper who was still hopping and gesturing, the music still audible in the headphones around the corpse’s neck.

Hugh stepped over and saw the body, that of a young white man, once muscular, once handsome, now swollen and blotched with purple patches. He wore a yellow t-shirt with a pattern of green palm leaves and a pair of long, loose shorts. His hands were at his chest, and his tongue protruded between white, even teeth. The desk was in a corner between two long tables, both containing two large rectangular glass tanks without covers, all except the one nearest the window, which contained a large piece of wood, a hollow rock, sawdust and a small pan of water.

“Looks like he had a lizard,” Derek said.

Hugh turned and looked at him. “A lizard?”

“Yeah, an iguana, one of those big ugly-ass lizards,” Derek said. “People keep them for pets. I wouldn’t have one of the damn things in my house, I’ll tell you that. Jesus.”

Hugh looked at the tanks. “Just one?”

“Looks like it to me. Must have been in that last tank, see? It’s the only one that has anything else in it, and there ain’t no water.”

“A dead man with an iguana,” Hugh said. “I’ve been chief of police in this town for seven years now, and this beats all I’ve ever seen. Call Moreno and get him to pick up the body so we can look at this place. And open another damned window! Bring a fan!”

…………

The body was found in a one-bedroom apartment in a small complex near the downtown business district on a street that ran parallel to the concrete-encased creek that still provided the nearby river with a venue for floodwater, but that didn’t prevent rampant development along the stream from downtown well into an old sedate residential district on higher ground upstream. The apartment complex had a variety of single and double bed apartments, and it was near a small shady park with picnic tables, a playground and two basketball courts that was always active with people, even in the hottest months in George, Mississippi.

Hugh didn’t have a forensics team in his department. Given the declining finances of the city, he considered himself lucky to have a secretary.  But he did have a county coroner, who was an exception to the general rule of limited experience when it came to coroners in the rural South. The coroner for Poindexter County was Abraham Moreno, who for one thing was a licensed physician. Moreno was also a man of parts, having served in the Peace Corps during the Sixties and traveled around the world with his late wife before settling the little city of George with his daughter. When Hugh asked him why the hell he’d come to this piece of backwoods to make a home, Moreno said, “To go fishing, of course. That’s what old men do, Chief. Well, that and grow roses, but it’s too hot here for roses.”

Hugh went back to the station and settled in for a long afternoon of complaints, most of which his secretary Kelly dealt with, but some had to be dealt with personally. One such call came from the mayor, the Honorable Claude Thompson, who by the generous rule of the town charter, had the authority to fire the chief at the drop of a hat, and was not above reminding Hugh of that.

“Hugh, I’ve been getting calls all afternoon about that body on Henry Street. What the hell is going on?”

“Claude, we’ve secured the scene and Moreno has the body,” Hugh said. “I’ll call you when I have more to tell you.”

“Jerry Wesson called me out of his mind. In case you didn’t know it, Alderman Wesson lives one street over on Olive. I also got a call from Reverend Alice Monroe, whose church happens to be on the corner, and just in case you didn’t know, the victim was her step-son.”

Claude looked at the ceiling and counted to three. “Hugh, do you want me to call them?”

“That’s the last goddamned thing I want you to do,” Claude thundered. “Just get your ass in gear. Do I need to call the coroner’s office and talk to that foreigner?”

“He’s from New Orleans, Claude.”

“I don’t give a shit. You tell him to get his ass in gear too.”

Hugh stared at the dead phone, then called Moreno. “Abe, I’m over a barrel.”

“That makes two of us, Hugh. You should come here and look at this. Do you have any men at the crime scene?”

“I’ve got a patrol car on the street, but that’s it.”

“Good. Just get here as fast as you can,” Moreno said. “It wasn’t an iguana.”

 

Buttermilk Bread with Cheddar and Rosemary

Dissolve one package quick-acting yeast in a half cup each of warm buttermilk and water with a tablespoon of sugar. When the yeast begins to work, add a quarter cup of vegetable oil and mix in alternately three cups white flour, half a cup of grated sharp cheddar and a quarter cup of fresh rosemary leaves. Knead until smooth, let rise for three hours, punch down and place in an oiled baking pan to rise until doubled. Bake in a moderate (350) oven for about an hour until crisp and golden.

 

Penny Eggs

Anyone who bellies up to a Bible-Belt bar on a Sunday morning drinks in the certainty that their stool is just as comfortable and congenial as any pew. Bartenders who work Sunday mornings know their customers well, and more often than not the harkening faces at the rail know a thing or so about the bartenders, too. They’re always telling on one another, and if it’s a really friendly bar, they’ll do it aloud, especially when not that many people are in the bar and the music’s low. It’s a special sort of bonding ritual that you just won’t find along an aisle.

Jake and I enjoy basking in these secular exchanges. We manage to steer clear of most petty imbroglios; oh, we’ll put our two cents in on something especially outrageous (or at least I will), but most of the time we just talk to each other. Jake grew up in upstate New York; I grew up in north Mississippi. He was probably pulling my leg when he told me that his parents once sent money to a charitable organization whose mission was to improve the lot of ignorant, parasite-infested Southerners, but I bristled anyway and reminded him that they did that once already (with taxes) and a less than charitable intent towards the majority of my ancestors. He in turn reminded me that his folks came over on the Concorde and that his parents don’t pay taxes. At this point, I should have bolted, but bearing in mind Faulkner’s mandate of love despite faults, we both endured and have come to learn that we have much in common. Take Vienna sausages, for instance, an iconic Southern nosh if there ever was one. Never in a million years would I have thought Jake knew of (much less ate them) as a child. But one Sunday morning at the bar he told me about penny eggs.

“My mother,” he said, “would take Vienna sausages, slice them crossways and put them in our scrambled eggs. She called them penny eggs.”

Suddenly I could hear a woman’s voice from a kitchen down a hall. “Do you want penny eggs for breakfast?” Or: “Hurry up or you’re going to miss your penny eggs.” What child would not be stirred? Pudgy little fists would begin to rub sleepy eyes, and soon the breakfast table would be surrounded by mouths eager for spoonfuls of eggs strewn with penny-like slices of mild sausage. If I live for another 800 years, I don’t think I’ll ever feel anything as warm or hear anything as charming as that childhood memory coming to light in a dingy, musty bar on a rainy Sunday morning. Of course, he found nothing endearing about my Vienna memories, which involved fishing for crappie on Grenada Lake and untangling barbed wire from MDOT bush hogs that had run over an old fence. “You were sweating,” he said. “They were like sodium suppositories.” After reminding him that we ate them, I tried to interject some romance into my remembrances.

“Jake,” I said. “Imagine that you’re in a leaky aluminum boat with a stuttering motor in the backwaters of a north Mississippi reservoir. It’s an early Saturday morning and sunny. You’re eight, fishing with a couple who have been married for forty years. You have your little baseball cap on, but your nose gets burned anyway. You catch one fish, a little one, to their twenty big ones. You get to drink all the Cokes you want, and pee off the side of the skiff. And for lunch, well before noon, you get saltines, a big piece of rat cheese, sardines if you want them, and a can of Vienna sausages.”

“Surrounded by venomous snakes no doubt,” he said. “And please tell me you didn’t eat the fish.” At this, I realized romanticizing barbed wire foul-ups on bush hogs was useless. I keep Viennas on hand, but Jake, despite his admission of a childhood fondness for them, has consigned them to what the calls the redneck corner of the cupboard, where he puts my sardines, salmon and saltines, but he lets me keep my red-rind cheddar in the fridge, bless his little heart.

Bon Ton Bread Pudding

“Le bon ton” can perhaps best be rendered in English as “the upper crust”, meaning that segment of society assumed to have a more polished style and better manners than us among The Great Unwashed. As such, the phrase “bon ton” has been used by a variety of businesses hoping to attract such a clientele, in particular restaurants. One such establishment, the Bon Ton Café at 211 West Capitol Street in Jackson, opened in the early 1900s. The Bon Ton was one of the city’s finest dining establishments, and had the first electric sign on Capitol Street to better attract diners from Union Station.

Another more famous Bon Ton was established in New Orleans in the Natchez Building at 401 Magazine Street. Originally opened in the early 1900s as well, the business was revived in the early 1950s by Al and Alzina Pierce, who came to the Crescent City from south Louisiana, bringing with them their recipes from Lafourche and Terrebonne Parishes, becoming the first dining establishment in the city to stake a claim for Cajun cuisine in a city already famous for its Creole culinary tradition.

The Bon Ton’s best-known dish is its bread pudding, which is ethereal. When I worked in the Florida panhandle, we made a similar pudding with stale croissants, but the texture was dense owing to the abundance of air pockets in the bread, which simply could not absorb the custard adequately; a good French loaf is required. Here is Alzina Pierce’s original recipe, which comes via Jackson native Winnifred Green Cheney’s Southern Hospitality Cookbook (Oxmoor, 1976).

Soak one loaf of French bread in a quart of whole milk and crush with hands until well mixed. Add 3 eggs, 2 cups sugar, 2 tablespoons vanilla extract, 1 cup seedless raisins (optional), and place in a buttered “thick, oblong baking pan”. Bake until very firm and cool. Make a whiskey sauce; cream a half cup of butter with a cup of sugar, and cook in a double boiler until thoroughly dissolved. Add a well-beaten egg, whipping rapidly to prevent curdling. Let cool and add whiskey of your choice to taste. Pour over pudding, heat under broiler and serve.