NEW YORK (AP) -- One day in 2020, at the height of the pandemic, a serious-looking man with long hair the color of buffalo sauce stepped onto a podium in Lincoln, Nebraska to address his city council during his public statement. His unexpected theme, as he put it: It was time to end the deception.
"I propose that as a city we remove the name 'Boneless Wings' from our menus and from our hearts," said Ander Christensen, who managed to be both compelling and tongue-in-cheek at the same time. "We've been living a lie for far too long."
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With theSuper BowlConsider at hand the gleeful untruth done (and generally with the blessing of) to the chicken-consuming citizens of the United States on menus across the country: a "boneless wing" that isn't a wing at all.
Chances are you already knew this — although spot checks on a few wing joints (see what we did there?) over the past year suggest a healthy number of Americans don't. But these little nuggets of white meat, delicious as they are, offer a glimpse into how things are marketed, how people believe them — and whether it matters to anyone but the chicken.
This weekend, Americans will eat 1.45 billion chicken wings, according to the National Chicken Council. So if you've always wanted to know what it means to eat the wings that aren't - and how the chicken wing's proximity to beer, good times and football propelled it to flight - now is the time.
Today's food landscape is full of these gentle cheats - things we eat that pass for other things we eat.
Surimi is a fish that effectively becomes crab or lobster meat for many of us — and stars are rolling across the country in California. Carrots are sliced and polished until their edges are curved and smooth, becoming "baby carrots" or somewhat more truthfully "baby carrots."Impossible burgersare plant-based delicacies that share many of the characteristics of meat without ever having been close to an animal. And "Chilean sea bass"? Not a perch at all, but a rebranding of something called the Patagonian Toothfish.
One reason for the rise of the "boneless wing" is money. In recent years, as the price of real chicken wings has increased, the alternative has become less expensive. The average price for prepared "boneless wings" is $4.99 per pound, compared to $8.38 per 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, which is currently plentiful."
"While many wing consumers argue that the wing needs a bone to impart a distinct flavor, the continued success of boneless wings has proven that there are plenty of boneless wing diners out there," Super said in an email.
Why? Part of that is because "boneless wings" - the quotation marks will remain for the duration of our time together - conjure up a powerful backstory.
"You associate it with the Super Bowl and parties and fun, so you change the perception of the product," says Christopher Kimball, founder of Christopher Kimball's Milk Street, a company whose magazine and educational TV show helps people cook and teach about food.
"Most people have no idea where this stuff comes from," says Kimball. "You can blame the food companies, but we buy it."
We accept them - even embrace them. And what does it really matter, you say? They're delicious, they're practical. So why dig into things that pair so perfectly with beer and make the sports watching world a better place?
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Here's one possible reason: Could they be a microcosm of national willingness to accept things that are not what they claim to be? And isn't that something this country is struggling mightily with, especially in the misinformation and disinformation saturated years since the "boneless wing" entered our world?
"It's not really wrong, but are we cheating people?" asks Matthew Read, who teaches advertising at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, New York, after two decades in advertising agencies. He hosts a cooking show on local TV called Spatchcock Funk.
"The wing," he says, "has gone from being an actual part of the chicken to something you can sauce and eat with your hands."
Whether or not cut from actual flight-related appendages, "boneless wings" have caught on. The Chicken Council, which credits the giant chain Buffalo Wild Wings with their invention, asked wing eaters what kind of wings they prefer in 2018, and 40 percent voted Team Boneless. Previous years were even higher.
Christensen, a chemical engineer by day, has been on his crusade for years. It started when he was in college and a group of friends had just broken up with their girlfriends. Suddenly they had more money and time, so they started going to wing restaurants three times a week. He began noticing how many "boneless wings" were ordered without feeling like they weren't what they said they were. A semi-comedic thing was born.
"I look around and I'm like, 'Why doesn't anyone care?'" he said in an interview this week.
He has conducted informal polls and reached out to people about their wing habits, including at a recent Ohio college football game. “The vast majority of people have no idea. Most people think it's part of the wing. Some think it's part of the thigh. A small group realized it was from the chicken breast.”
His theory: Generations raised on chicken nuggets turn to "bony wings" to allow themselves these eating habits. "They can pretend to eat like adults," he says.
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Could the definition of the word "wing" change? Many wing places now offer a "cauliflower wing" alternative whose only relation to an actual wing is the sauce. And some vegan "wing" recipes even suggest sticking a popsicle stick into the cauliflower to resemble 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 normalize manipulation," says Plakias. “Is a wing a part of a bird or is a wing some kind of sauce? And that ambiguity is where I think we open up room for deception.”
And so perhaps the language develops, although there are skeptics.
"Personally, I think it's important. I want to know exactly what 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-proclaimed devotee of the "traditional wing."
Christensen vows to keep going, mentioning—almost in passing—that he's aiming to become "the world's first chicken wing lobbyist." His efforts have drawn some contempt; People from right and left accuse him of transporting an encrypted message about something political. He insists it's nothing more than a culinary quest for truth.
"Actually, I'm only interested in boneless wings," he says. "I have a little hill to die on. But it's mine."