NEW YORK -- One day in 2020, at the pandemic’s height, an earnest-looking man with long hair the color of Buffalo sauce stepped up to a podium in Lincoln, Nebraska, to address his city council during its public comment period. His unexpected topic, as he framed it: It was time to end the deception.
“I propose that we as a city remove the name `boneless wings’ from our menus and from our hearts,” said Ander Christensen, who managed to be both persuasive and tongue-in-cheek all at once. “We’ve been living a lie for far too long.”
With the Super Bowl at hand, behold the cheerful untruth that has been perpetrated upon (and generally with the blessing of) the chicken-consuming citizens of the United States on menus across the land: a “boneless wing” that isn’t a wing at all.
Odds are you already knew that — though spot checks over the past year at a smattering of wing joints (see what we did there?) suggest that a healthy amount of Americans don't. But those little white-meat nuggets, tasty as they may be, offer a glimpse into how things are marketed, how people believe them — and whether it matters to anyone but the chicken.
This weekend, according to the National Chicken Council, Americans are set to eat 1.45 billion chicken wings. So if you ever wanted a deep dive into what it means to eat the wings that aren't — and how the chicken wing's proximity to beer, good times and football sent it soaring — now's the time.
Today's food landscape is brimming with these gentle impostors — things we eat that pass as other things we eat.
Surimi is fish that effectively becomes crab or lobster meat for many of us — and stars in California rolls across the land. Carrots are cut and buffed until their edges are curved and smooth, becoming “ baby carrots ” or, slightly more truthfully, “baby-cut carrots.” Impossible Burgers are plant-based delicacies that carry many of meat's characteristics without ever having been near an animal. And “Chilean sea bass"? Not a bass at all, but a rebrand of something called a Patagonian toothfish.
Part of the reason for the rise of the “boneless wing” is money. In recent years, with prices of actual chicken wings rising, the alternative became more cost effective. The average price for prepared “boneless wings” is $4.99 a pound compared with $8.38 a pound for bone-in wings, according to Tom Super, senior vice president of communications for the National Chicken Council, citing the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He calls it “a way to move more boneless/skinless breast meat that continues currently to be in ample supply.”
“While many wing consumers argue that the wing needs a bone to impart a special taste, the ongoing success of the boneless wings has proven there are plenty of boneless wing diners,” Super said in an email.
Why? Part of it is because “boneless wings” — the quotation marks will remain for the duration of our time together — summon a powerful backstory.
“You’re associating it with the Super Bowl and parties and fun, so you transform the perception of the product,” says Christopher Kimball, founder of Christopher Kimball’s Milk Street, a company whose magazine and instructional TV show help people cook and teach them about food.
“Most people have no idea where any of this stuff comes from,” Kimball says. “You can blame the food companies, but we’re buying it.”
We accept them — embrace them, even. And what does it really matter, you say? They're delicious, they're convenient. So why poke into things that pair so perfectly with beer and make the sports-watching world a better place?
Here's one possible reason: Could they be a microcosm of the national willingness to accept things that aren't what they purport to be? And isn't that something that this country struggles with mightily, particularly in the misinformation- and disinformation-saturated years since the “boneless wing” entered our world?
“It’s not really wrong, but are we tricking people?” wonders Matthew Read, who teaches advertising at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, New York, after two decades with ad agencies. He hosts a cooking show on local television called “Spatchcock Funk.”
“The wing,” he says, "has gone from being an actual part of chicken to being just something you can sauce and eat with your hands.”
Whether cut from actual flying-related appendages or not, “boneless wings” have taken hold. The chicken council, which credits the behemoth chain Buffalo Wild Wings with inventing them, asked wing eaters in 2018 which kind of wings they preferred, and 40% placed themselves on Team Boneless. Previous years were even higher.
Christensen, a chemical engineer by day, has been on his wing crusade for years. It began when he was in college, and a group of friends had all just split with their girlfriends. Suddenly they had extra money and time, so they started going to wing restaurants three times a week. He began noticing how many “boneless wings” were ordered with no sense that they weren't what they purported to be. A semi-comedic cause was born.
“I'm looking around and saying, `Why doesn't anybody care?'” he said in an interview this week.
He has done informal surveys, accosting people about their wing habits, including at one recent college football game in Ohio. “The vast majority of people have no clue. Most people think it’s part of the wing. Some think it’s part of the thigh. A small group realized that it was from the chicken breast.”
His theory: Generations that grew up on chicken nuggets turn to “boneless wings” as a way of allowing themselves to continue those eating habits. “They get to pretend they're eating like adults,” he says.
Could the very definition of the word “wing” be changing? Many wing places now offer a “cauliflower wing” alternative, whose only relationship with an actual wing is the sauce. And some vegan “wing” recipes even suggest inserting a popsicle stick into the cauliflower to approximate a chicken bone.
“Our idea of what a wing is comes from what we’re told we’re eating,” says Alexandra Plakias, who teaches at Hamilton College in New York and is the author of “Thinking Through Food: A Philosophical Introduction.”
“These kinds of mini-deceptions that seem fun kind of normalize manipulation,” Plakias says. “Is a wing a part of a bird, or is a wing a style of sauce? And that ambiguity is where I think we open up room for deception."
And so perhaps the language evolves, though there are pockets of skeptics.
“Personally, I do think it matters. I want to know exactly what it is that I’m ordering and what’s in my food," says Natalie Visconti, 20, of Bridgewater, New Jersey, a sophomore at Penn State University and a self-described “traditional wing” aficionado.
Christensen vows to carry on, and mentions — almost in passing — that he's gunning to become “the world's first chicken-wing lobbyist.” His efforts have drawn some scorn; people right and left accuse him of carrying a coded message about something political. He insists it's nothing more than culinary truth-seeking.
“Genuinely, I really only care about boneless wings,” he says. "I have one small hill to die on. But it’s mine.”
Ted Anthony, director of new storytelling and newsroom innovation for The Associated Press, has been writing about American culture since 1990. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/anthonyted