How the Wing Bowl gets its chicken wings in gear

Posted: February 01, 2013

THERE IS A LOT TO ADORE - or at least to ogle - at the Wing Bowl. There are local celebs, namely, 94WIP's Angelo Cataldi and Al Morganti, co-creators of the 21-year-old extravaganza, and Rhea Hughes, who keeps the guys in line.

There are an estimated 20,000 spectators - rowdy, predominantly male carousers who pay 10 bucks each to get their Super Bowl party started early (very early) Friday, like way before 6 a.m.

There are Wingettes, a scantily clad, buxom battalion that is part cheerleaders, part servers, part centerfolds.

Then there are the 20-odd competitive eaters, unknown and pro gastro-athletes who take the floor of the Wells Fargo Center with much fanfare. Some have big entourages. Some ride on small floats. Many puff up their chests and bellies in pride. They look like WWE personalities, kinda.

Only one will emerge victorious.

But enough about them.

What of the wings themselves? And the brave chickens who gave their lives to make Wing Bowl 21 possible?

(OK, we're not really going that far.) But we will discover how the lucky (or unlucky) birds are picked, prepped, how they stack up to other eating-contest fare - and how they've caused a bit of cha-cha-chicken controversy.

A wing and a prayer

It all begins Thursday night in South Jersey.

Every Wing Bowl eve, a Sysco truck delivers 5,000 one-ounce blades and 5,000 one-ounce drumsticks, fresh from a farm in North Carolina, to P.J. Whelihan's Haddonfield pub.

As the clock strikes 12, three cooks crank up five fryers to oil-bathe all 10,000 hen appendages. Why so many, since most scoff jocks tap out well before they down 200?

P.J. Whelihan's chief operating officer Jim Fris has paid the bill for the bowl's wings for the last five years. He said, "Even though no one's ever eaten over 300 wings - other than last year, with [Takeru] Kobayashi [who consumed 337] - you figure, what if they all did? You gotta be ready. There would be nothing worse than running out of wings at Wing Bowl."

Cooking up 10K poultry parts takes P.J. Whelihan's crew a little more than two hours. At 2 a.m., they load up the fried fowl into three large hot boxes. At 2:30 a.m., they head across the Delaware in the pub's bright yellow 26-foot "Wing Truck."

Fris calls the trip to South Philly a "quick shot." But even at 3 a.m., the line to get into the parking lot is long enough for the wings bearers to require a police escort.

Once inside the Wells Fargo Center, team P.J. Whelihan's plugs in the hot boxes, readies 16 gallons of homemade mild buffalo sauce for basting the wings at the last minute, breaks out the disposable plates and gloves, and waits.

That's when Fris panics.

"The standard joke among my crew is, 'How many times is Jim gonna ask if we have enough wings?' " he said.

Size matters

Fris needn't freak. His peeps always end the day with clucker to spare. Not that the pub could use the leftovers back in Haddonfield - they're too small.

"If you went to P.J.'s tonight for wings, you'd get a much larger wing," said Fris. "For Wing Bowl, the wings run between 12 and 14 to a pound. At P.J.'s they're a little less than 7, about 6.8 to a pound."

Like shrimp, wings come by count - nowadays.

For 25 years, Mitch Blackman owned the Rib Ranch at Castor and Aramingo. During years three through 16, Blackman supplied the bowl's bird. (For Wing Bowl's first two years, Morganti's butcher made the chicken at home.)

Back when Blackman first started Wing Bowling, "the wings would come whole. We'd have to cut them at the joints. It was a pain in the neck." (Blackman sold the Rib Ranch in 2006 and is now a defense contractor.) He added that in his day, he could order only one small size of blades and drumsticks. "Any smaller, and they're pigeons."

Morganti said the wings may be little, but at least they've always all been the same size. "It's amazing to me how similar they are," he said. "I don't know how, if they clone these chickens or whatever."

Raising the wing bar

Wing Bowlers seem to consume more each year. Last year, Kobayashi's 337 trumped Jonathan "Super" Squibb's 255 in 2011, which topped 238, Squibb's number from 2010.

Morganti attributes the ever-increasing wing counts to the increasing competitiveness of competitive eating. "Now all the pros come in, and now there's a lot of money in it," he said. "And trucks and stuff. They train."

Some insiders disagree. They think the bowl's bird bits are getting itsy-bitsier.

One longtime competitor, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, quipped, "[acclaimed competitive eater] Joey Chestnut comes in from California, wins three Wing Bowls, and his numbers are somewhere around the 160 mark. Then Squibb gets to 200? How the heck do you think Kobayashi ate 337 wings? It's not because they're the biggest wings you ever saw in your life. They've gotten smaller."

Three-time champ Squibb, of Berlin, N.J., disagreed. The wings, he said, have "stayed consistent year to year." (After the bowl, Squibb heads to Chickie's and Pete's for a pizza. That night, it's back to P.J. Whelihan's for - you guessed it - a couple of dozen wings.)

Still, another anonymous insider suggested the year-over-year increase is a result of the contest being rigged, calling the competition "complete b-------."

George Shea, founder of the International Federation of Competitive Eating, which runs Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest and 80 more competitions worldwide, lauded the Wing Bowl as "an American institution rivaled only by the Bill of Rights."

Shea admitted, however, that his organization's wing events, including an annual Labor Day eat-off in Buffalo, require a wing weigh-in before and after the eat-off. He called this method "a total pain. But we have always felt it is worth weighing them, because it's more accurate."

After all, a hot dog is a hot dog. A bowl of spaghetti is a bowl of spaghetti. Whereas wings are what pro eaters call "technique" food. You can't just eat the whole thing and be done. Wings eaters must separate meat from bone, leaving different amounts behind and leaving Wing Bowl judges to make spur-of-the-moment calls.

Still, you can't deny that eating that many wings in that little time calls for some major skills.

Said Rick "The Manager" Russo, a Royersford resident, four-time Wing Bowl competitor and recent third-place finisher in the International Fruitcake Eating championship, "You gotta have really good hand-mouth coordination."

You also, he said, "need to teach yourself to swallow large amounts of food that are not necessarily mashed up going in. People overlook that all the time: You still gotta swallow."


On Twitter: @LaMcCutch

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