However you chose to slice it, dice it or dip it, the amount of food consumed in the United States on Super Bowl Sunday is staggering. As one nation, under delivery, Americans can be expected to consume, based on past game days, an estimated 12.5 million pizzas, perhaps hundreds of millions of pounds of avocados (mainly in the form of guacamole), and four times the normal amount of nachos, and to wash all that food down with, by some accounts, roughly 325 million gallons of beer. Unsurprisingly, on the nation’s second-biggest food consumption day, antacid sales at 7/11 also rise some 20%.
But among the most iconic of modern football foods is undoubtedly the chicken wing; according to the National Chicken Council, Americans will smother some 1.38 billion chicken wings with Ranch this weekend alone. (This, as the Chicken Council PR team points out, is an amount of food that weighs more than all of the 32 existing NFL teams combined and can circle the Earth three times over.) But what’s truly staggering about the enormity of this consumption is not its size but rather how new it is. Flash back to any point in American history prior to the 1970s and you would have had to have paid many Americans to put this part of the chicken in their mouths.
Writing on the lack of civic morale in Buffalo, N.Y. — birthplace of the famed Buffalo Chicken Wing — one author jokingly lamented, “Could the problem have been exacerbated by making a local specialty out of a part of a chicken that somebody in San Francisco or Houston might throw away?”
Large-scale chicken consumption like this is generally a very recent phenomenon in American culinary history. Consumption of anything other than the white meat is even newer. Before the 1950s, chicken was incredibly expensive, even more difficult to cook (you almost always had to buy a whole chicken), and not particularly well liked in the United States, leaving beef and pork to long dominate American dinner time. And even after chicken farming industrialized in the 1950s, rapidly making chicken the inexpensive meat that we know and love today, Americans still weren’t buying it. This situation forced the U.S. government to seek out alternative markets for this fledgling American commodity.
At first, this meant sending whole, frozen chickens to Europe in bulk, a trade decision that ultimately didn’t work out too well for the United States. The so-called Chicken Tax that resulted from this trade war in the early 1960s has since been blamed for causing the subsequent decline of the American auto industry. In response to the tariffs Europe imposed on chickens, the United States imposed an import tariff on light trucks, the production of which European producers like Volkswagen were dominating at the time. This tariff shielded U.S. automakers from competition for decades, which experts say contributed to stagnation in innovation and essentially left the industry with no defenses when Asian automakers started exporting their newer, more fuel-efficient vehicles to the United States.
With the increased globalization of the world economy and the advent of processed chicken in the 1960s and 1970s, the bird could now be traded in bits and pieces according to global food preferences. The white breast meat, which was overwhelmingly preferred by Americans when they did eat chicken, was kept at home, while the darker wings and thighs wound their way to countries like Mexico and China. In spite of skirmish after skirmish over American chicken exports in places as diverse as Egypt, South Africa and Brazil, by the 1980s the guts and entrails of the bird gradually wound their way to places like South Africa to become pet food while the feathers ended up in places like Indonesia to be transformed into down coats and fertilizers.
This state of affairs remained more or less stable until the Bellissimo family in Buffalo, N.Y., started deep frying wings, coating them in hot sauce and serving them with their requisite side of celery and blue-cheese dipping sauce. How exactly the Buffalo Chicken Wing was invented is a bit nebulous – as this 1980 article in the New Yorker explains, it was either developed as a treat for some regulars or as an ingenious way to use a mistaken delivery of chicken wings at the family’s now famous Anchor Bar — but its significance in the history of American cuisine cannot be understated. It would take a little while for the wing eating trend; the dish remained a regional specialty for decades and it wasn’t until 1977 that Buffalo started its now famous annual Chicken Wing Day. But by the 1980s Buffalo chicken wings had made their way to bar menus throughout the country, helped in part by the fact that generally low demand for chicken wings kept the price incredibly low.
And when the wings were in American deep fryers, they weren’t being sent overseas. It’s not a coincidence that the major 1990 trade agreement between Russia and the United States included millions of tons of “Bush legs” — named after then President George H.W. Bush — to feed a hungry post-Soviet population and not “Bush wings.” With domestic demand rising, thanks in large parts to new events like the annual Wing Bowl, one of the world’s most prestigious competitive eating competitions that ran from 1993 to 2018, the economic incentive to keep the wings at home only increased.
The domestic prices of chicken wings have gradually grown year over year, experiencing a large spike each year around Super Bowl Sunday. With the wings staying stateside, the export of U.S. chicken, as the National Chicken Council explains, now relies largely on the “leg quarters and other back parts of the bird.” Amongst these are undoubtedly, the 330,000 pounds of giant American “chicken paws,” the bird’s feet, that are sent to China to be lightly cooked and snacked on with a cold beer. As was the case with the wing, this situation may yet be temporary; perhaps someone has already invented something deep-fried and delicious that will make Americans want to keep these chicken paws or legs or backs at home.
Emelyn Rude is a food historian and the author of Tastes Like Chicken: A History of America’s Favorite Bird