SCHENECTADY – Zombies are real.
And they are … feeding.
If the ghost of George Romero is here, he is nodding with approval.
The two figures are hunched over the jumble of vertebrate limbs in gruesome countenance. Fingers greasy and mouths painted in gore, they gnaw through alkaloid skin and tender flesh with stoic determination.
The grim pile of discarded bones grows.
It was me and Pete Barber.
Pete came up for air.
“Oh … these ARE good.”
The notion of Buffalo chicken wings as comfort food seems absurd upon detached examination, especially in light of the challenges one faces while consuming them.
Let’s get this out of the way before we go anywhere else: I’m a staunch bone-in, hot sauce, chunks-o’-real-blue-cheese traditionalist.
Boneless is blasphemy. Mild? Why bother. Mayo-and-garlic powder … malignant.
Whether by design or not, everything about Buffalo wings is supposed to be uncomfortable on some level. There are segments of the population who find each individual component on its own to be repellant. There’s vinegar. Even negligible-calorie, nutrient- and fiber-rich celery — celery! — doesn’t get a free pass.
So if the expansive Thanksgiving dinner table is the undisputed sacred altar to its comfort food congregation, then a basket of gnarled, steaming, cayenne-peppered chicken wings — paired with a little plastic cup of moldy, skunky, salty blue cheese — is the backwoods shotgun wedding.
White lace tablecloth vs. Wet-Nap Moist Towelette?
Sign me up. I RSVPed decades ago.
I grew up in Irondequoit, New York, a suburb of Rochester less than an hour and a half from Buffalo, so I’ll make the case for chicken wings as comfort food from the perspective of someone who scoffed at one of our managers at Burger King for testing this “new thing” in a fry-o-lator, then ingested them with alarming speed and volume before graduating from high school in 1981.
Anchor Bar, Duff’s … the prehistory is hazy, but everybody knows where this strange alien spreading throughout the land in the 1980s originated: “It Came from Buffalo.”
Back then, the idea of ordering wings for takeout never occurred to us. It was always part of a social gathering, nasty mess be damned, and in an odd way that’s how chicken wings descended from the night sky and found a perch in the landscape of comfort food.
If you’re self-conscious about how you appear to people when you’re eating in public, wings probably aren’t for you.
As Patton Oswalt posited in his classic bit on Cheetos, “If you’re at a party, and there’s some hot chick you wanna hook up with, and a big bowl of Cheetos? You’ve got a decision to make.”
I’m reminded of a basket of garlic parm wings I once tried at 20 North Broadway that absolutely reeked. Somehow, I didn’t care. Somehow, nobody else did, either, and another fun NFL Sunday rolled along.
Feats of strength
I’ve been on the other side, too.
In the mid-1980s, when Hurley’s bar on Clinton and Quail in Albany routinely won first place for its wings in Metroland’s annual “Best Of” edition, I spent a few months as a line cook there.
The secrecy of the wing sauce recipe was so valuable to Hurley’s identity that only co-owner Kevin McGeary was allowed to mix it, which he did in big buckets in the basement every Sunday morning, enough to last the week.
During the Friday rush, which could last for hours before trickling down to one last late-arriving act of desperation shortly before 4 a.m. close, you didn’t even keep track of orders. You just kept every fry basket filled at all times, slid the dupes along the assembly line and shook the sizzling chicken parts into the aluminum saucing bowls until the smoke cleared.
Had a guy tell me to make them as hot as I could, and after I dumped enough extra cayenne, black and white pepper and Tabasco to burn the sole off a shoe, he said, “I asked you to make these hot.”
Speaking of fortitude, perhaps the greatest feat of willpower I ever performed was driving 4 1/2 hours from Buffalo to Schenectady and not once stopping to sample the order stashed in the trunk, the smell of Duff’s around me.
Buffalo remains the wing capital of the world.
Witness the “Winghead” hats at Bills games, a nod to the Green Bay Packers’ Cheeseheads, and savor the chef’s-kiss billboards and social media posts accusing Tom Brady of dipping his chicken wings in ranch dressing instead of blue cheese, the ultimate sacrilege.
But wings went worldwide a long time ago.
A lobbying outfit called the National Chicken Council estimated that Americans would consume 1.42 billion wings on Super Bowl Sunday alone when the Los Angeles Rams played the Cincinnati Bengals on Feb. 13.
Somewhere, Tippi Hedren was shuddering.
I can personally vouch for hefty Super Bowl wing consumption during the 2006 championship game won by the Steelers over the Seahawks, after having participated in the Lake Ontario Polar Bear Plunge that morning.
I was still shivering when I parked myself on a barstool at Shamrock Jack’s in Irondequoit an hour later, but a dose of capsaicin and Scoville Heat Units cranked me back to a warm place. Oh, having some of my siblings there was OK, too. And hitting a square.
I didn’t venture too far afield for this assignment, but was curious to try the signature “Jordan-esque” wings at Finnigan’s Tavern on Ballston Lake, so I made a pit stop on a busy, crowded Saturday afternoon two weekends ago.
The neat, symmetrical arrangement on a long rectangular white plate threw me. But the lack of visual chaos was contrasted by the Frankenstein monster that is the sauce, which included “cayenne pepper, barbeque, parmesan, garlic, butter and bleu cheese crumbles.”
I’ll stick to my traditions, but enjoyed these wings, in part because I settled into the old rhythms — stinging tongue, pile of wadded-up napkins, slugs of beer. But also because I got to meet John Urkevich and his wife, who took up the only vacant barstools in the joint, next to me. I got around to explaining to them how difficult my job is.
Turns out John was named a Gazette Athlete of the Week as a baseball player at Mechanicville High School in 1970.
More than 50 years later, with a twinkle in his eye, he admits to still being a little miffed that he had to share it with some track and field kid from another school (I was 7 years old at the time and had nothing to do with this).
I had no such reservations about sharing a basket of wings from Annabel’s Pizza Co. with our photographer Pete Barber on Oct. 18.
It took just a few minutes for him to take some pictures for this column at Frog Alley Brewing on State Street, which has an Annabel’s service window inside the bar. It took even fewer minutes for us to make the subject of the photos go away.
The nice modification from traditional fried wings you can get from Annabel’s is to have them cooked in the wood-fired pizza oven instead of the age-old fry-o-lator I first witnessed at Burger King when I was in high school and sweated over at Hurley’s a few years later.
There’s something primeval about the random patches of tasty char on the Annabel’s wings.
Their hot sauce is outstanding.
There are genuine chunks of blue cheese in the dressing.
Zombies are real.
I had a banana and a glass of orange juice for breakfast early that morning and had missed lunch by the time I got to Frog Alley at 3 p.m.
I was prepared to go all “Night of the Living Dead” on those wings after the photo shoot, scrabbling possessively for every last morsel and growling territorial threats.
I shared them.