Fifty years ago, pizza was beginning to capture the attention of American eaters. Pizza Hut was becoming a successful local chain in Wichita, Kan. Shakey’s had spread from the West Coast into Amarillo. Domino’s Pizza began franchising after its start in Ypsilanti, Mich.
And chicken wings were just something to throw away.
One of the least appreciated cuts of a chicken, the wing was mainly used to prepare stock – if it was used at all.
Today, chicken wings have become almost as important as pizza in the American fast-food diet. We eat three billion pizzas a year and 28 billion wings. An estimated 1.25 billion wings were consumed during last month’s Super Bowl. And more than 75 percent of pizza retailers sell wings alongside their pizza.
The story of how the lowly chicken wing became a delicacy may be apocryphal at this point, as several Buffalo-area restaurants claim to have invented it as a menu improvisation after receiving a huge, mistaken delivery of wings. Regardless of the creation myth, it’s pretty clear when wings became an ideal pairing with pizza. In 1994, Domino’s Pizza noticed that some New York pizzerias had begun finding success marketing wings alongside their pizzas. The national chain followed suit. Experimenting with the pairing, it started advertising wings during NFL games.
It wasn’t long before hungry football fans took notice. Within the next decade, pizza-and-wings became the preferred game-day meal for sporting events. Franchises like Little Caesar’s, Papa John’s, and Pizza Hut followed suit. All sell dramatic numbers of wings today.
At Pizza Planet, Ronnie Inmon can’t remember when his restaurant put wings on the menu. “It’s been a long time, almost as long as I can remember working there,” he says. He believes the hand-held nature of wings make them an ideal accompaniment to pizza. “It’s finger food, and straight out of a box. You put it on a napkin and go. That’s what pizza is about, too.”
Brad Davis of Fire Slice understands the draw of wings and offers them for customers, but says this owes more to customer service than profitability. After all, with only two wings per chicken, these once-useless cuts are now in high demand. That has driven up the price. “We have a loyal wing following,” Davis says. He attributes this, in part, to his homemade, sweet-spicy garlic buffalo sauce. “We have regulars who get two or three orders to go at once. We sell them, but they’re so expensive we don’t make much money on them.”
He agrees with Inmon that the popularity of wings has something to do with convenience, but offers that taste plays a big role as well. “They go well with pizza because it’s a protein. It’s got that bite and tang that complements the rich, cheesy, bready pizza,” Davis says.
Americans may not know exactly why they crave wings when pizza is on the menu. Maybe it’s marketing. Maybe it’s the taste combination. Maybe it’s the fact that neither requires a utensil. Whatever the case, though, wings and pizza seem to have supplanted peanut butter and jelly or bacon and eggs as America’s favorite food pairing.
Jason is a journalist, copywriter, ghostwriter, and the author of more than a dozen books. His most recent is “12 World Religions: The Beliefs, Rituals, and Traditions of Humanity's Most Influential Faiths”, published by Zephyros Press. Learn more at jasonboyett.com.