Who is the creator of the world-famous Buffalo wings? Many people believe the wing was invented in Buffalo’s Anchor Bar by Italian-born couple Frank and Teressa Bellissimo in the 1960s. But there is another story.
“Anybody that was around back then will tell you that John Young was the originator,” 74-year-old Theodore Clyburn recently told USA TODAY.
Young, a Black man who once lived on Buffalo, New York’s East Side, spent the last years of his life fighting to be given credit as the creator. “I am the true inventor of the Buffalo chicken wing,” Young told Buffalo News in 1996, two years before his death.
Young admitted at the time that Teressa Bellissimo was the first person to cut the wings in half before frying and the first to serve them with celery and blue cheese dressing. However, the original concept was his, he said.
“It hurts me so bad that other people take the credit.”
Indeed, only a few official sources have mentioned the role of the Black chef in the history of Buffalo wings, the skinny chicken parts now a staple snack across the United States. Young had been selling chicken wings since 1963. In 1964, however, he opened Wings and Things at 1313 Jefferson Ave. at Utica.
Born and raised on an Alabama farm, he had come to Buffalo in 1948 at the age of 13. He knew much about chicken wings by the time he came to Buffalo. Wings had been part of the diet of the poor in the South since before the Civil War, according to a report by Buffalo News. Enslaved people were forced to cook with not only wings but the pigs’ feet, intestines or chitterlings, necks, backs, chicken feet, and organ meats, according to history.
For generations, African Americans in the South served whole fried chicken to their families, food historian Adrian Miller said. The visiting preacher would usually take the breast and the thighs of fried chicken dinners, with the wings going to children. Young, raised as one of 14 children, often got the wings.
After moving to Buffalo as a teen to find work, he got married to Christine Young in 1958, and they would go on to have three children together. At the time they got married, Young was working at Bethlehem Steel before moving to American Radiator. In 1962, he left that job and decided to go into business for himself, as reported by local media WKBW.
Young bought a property in Buffalo at the corners of Jefferson and Carlton and while doing business there, a boxer named Sam Anderson told him about a person in Washington D.C. who was selling chicken wings. Anderson asked Young to do the same. Soon, Young began selling the whole wing (which was then a part of the chicken that many people only used to make stock or threw away).
“That’s when chicken wings was born in Buffalo NY”, he stated in a hand-written biography he left for his daughter Lina Brown-Young, WKBW reported. Young’s wing business in Buffalo then moved up the street to Jefferson and High and then some years later to Jefferson and Utica, where he added the favorite Mambo or Mombo sauce, attracting scores of people including celebrities.
“The first day I opened the doors, I realized I had created a monster. People came from everywhere in droves to try the wings with the mombo sauce,” Young wrote.
Mambo sauce is a tomato-based sauce with a mixture of spices and seasonings. City of Buffalo councilman James Pitts at the time called Young’s Wings and Things’ mambo sauce the “lip-smacking, liver-quivering sauce (that) titillated our taste buds down to our toes.”
Young later added tropical fruits to his mambo sauce after spending some time in the Bahamas. During this period, he had a number of friends that he spent time with, including Frank Bellissimo, Young’s wife Christine Young told WKBW. “He used to get together as some business men after hours would be talking and carrying on,” said Christine Young. “I know Frank used to visit my husband in the restaurant business, and I know that was before Frank started selling chicken wings.”
In the 1970s, Young was forced to leave Buffalo with his family after racial tensions. He and his family moved to Deatur, Illinois. “We moved to Illinois and he did good there with his business and he got like a little fleet of trucks,” said Christine Young.
A decade later, Young returned to Buffalo, and found that the chicken wing business had boomed, with all credit going to Anchor Bar.
“They wouldn’t have dared claim they invented the wing while my father was still around,” Young’s daughter Brown-Young told USA TODAY this year. “They just wouldn’t.”
In 1996, Ivano Toscani, who was then manager of the Anchor Bar, insisted in an interview with Buffalo News that the wings were invented and first served by the Bellissimos in the Anchor Bar in 1964.
“Teressa used to keep wings on hand to make stock, and this time they were larger than usual so she thought they were too beautiful to waste. She chopped off the tip and cut them in half and fried them and served them with sauce, with celery,” Toscani said. “I don’t know whether there was blue cheese dressing then, however.”
Young went back to his wing business when he returned to Buffalo and told all who would listen that he was the inventor of the famous Buffalo wings. He insisted that Anchor Bar did not serve wings regularly until 1974. Young’s final restaurant closed in the 1980s and his family believes that the lack of marketing and the failure to secure a trademark is the reason Young’s name is not recorded as the originator of the wing today.