I love buffalo wings. For 10 – 15 dollars (less when the bar I’ve chosen has a special), I can order 12 pieces of plump chicken battered in breading and smothered in tangy, fiery sauce. I can throw my usual plan to avoid fried food out the window, I can eat with my hands (because, why not? It’s easier that way), and I can drink pints of Bud Light or some other watered-down beer and actually enjoy it because it balances out the spicy taste just perfectly.

But until a year or so after college, I refused to eat buffalo wings.

A Hands-on Fear

I didn’t refuse to eat buffalo wings because I found them unhealthy, and not because I found them to be too spicy, but because I was actually afraid to eat them with my hands in public.

As someone who grew up in Philadelphia, and given that the entire nation witnessed the underdog victory of the Philadelphia Eagles in the Super Bowl just one week ago, it seems fitting that my fear of eating buffalo wings was conquered during the 2008 World Series, Game 5, on the night when the Philadelphia Phillies won it all.

World Series Phever

Let’s take a closer look at my first experience of eating a buffalo wing.

It’s October 29, 2008, and I’m at a local sports bar on West Chester University’s campus with a group of friends from high school. We’ve graduated from college just five months prior, and we’re each living with our parents, working at the first job we could find and still trying to figure out the next steps in our lives.

Though we’ve met often since graduation, tonight we’re together because the Philadelphia Phillies have reached the World Series. As a lifelong Phillies fan, the journey has been unforgiving and brutal, until now. The team has not been to the World Series since 1993, and after high hopes in a promising roster for the 2007 season, they became the first team in professional sports history to lose 10,000 games. This run in the 2008 World Series is an exhilarating accomplishment for the team, and its fans are riding the high.

It’s Game 5 of the series, and the Phillies lead the series 3-1 against the Tampa Bay Rays. A victory tonight will secure a 4-game win for the Phillies, and will crown them World Series Champions, the largest victory achievable in American professional baseball.
The atmosphere in the bar is electric. People are talking loudly, jumping, embracing enthusiastically, and high fiving. All of the 15 high-definition TVs are set to Fox, with the screens showing World Series announcers Joe Buck and Tim McCarver. Girls are dressed in red tights and red shoes, in oversized jerseys draped with red and white beads. Guys are dressed in red sweatpants and white sneakers with red shoelaces, with hats with a red or white Phillies “P.”

My group of seven is gathered in a booth with high, fabric panels that form a semi-circle around the table. We’ve ordered two 64-ounce towers of beer that have a spigot for easy pouring and stand on four, small plastic legs. Pint glasses and plates of food are scattered across the table.

Wings of Choice

“I’m sweating,” my friend Jeremy says, pushing back his long, brown hair and wiping his forehead. “Why?” I ask.

“It’s the wings,” Brenda replies, pointing to Jeremy’s plate of orangey-brown fried chicken. “He ordered extra hot.” Jeremy is now exercising exaggerated breathing, pursing his lips for an exhale and pulling them back into a stretched smile for an inhale. When this recovery pattern ceases, he picks up a wing with both hands, and begins tearing into it with his teeth. The orangey-brown sauce covers his hands and face.
I glance around. The other inhabitants at my table are talking, laughing, looking at their cell phones, intently watching the screens. No one is watching Jeremy destroy this chicken wing. No one seems to care, at all, that he is eating with his hands and that his food is covering his face.

“Do you want one?” Jeremy asks, when he sees me staring at his food. I look down at my half-eaten turkey club on wheat bread with a side of French fries. I don’t know how to answer him. I’m a big fan of fried chicken, but if I’m eating food with my hands, that food is usually a sandwich, or a free-standing appetizer, such as nachos or tortilla chips and guacamole, where something solid and sauceless creates a barrier between the sauce and my hand.

“How hot are they? You seemed to think they were pretty hot,” I say. “I’m not sure if I can handle that.” Truthfully, I love spicy food. I’m proud of the fact that I even worked up a tolerance to it while in college, frequenting Moe’s Southwest Grill and gradually adding spicier salsas and peppers to my burritos. I had started to enjoy the feeling of my eyes watering and my sinuses clearing with each bite.

However, here at the bar, I just can’t get comfortable with picking up a wing, in all its orangey-brown, buffalo sauce glory, with my hands. What will people think of me? Will they really not even glance at me? And the spicy sauce is going to cover my face, which means I’ll have to use the restroom mirror to ensure the orange tint is completely removed from my skin. Major hassle factor when there’s an important game going on, right?

“Sarah, you’ll be fine,” Brenda says, interjecting my circle of worry. “You can always eat the fries on your plate after. They will soak up some of the hotness.” Again, I’m not concerned about the hotness.

Emotional Decisions

“Yeah, that’s right! That’s how Philly does it!” Jeremy shouts, on his feet, wing sauce covering his face. He pumps his fist in the air. Outfielder Geoff Jenkins has just scored a run for the Phillies, running from third base at the crack of the bat and Jayson Werth’s pop fly. It’s the bottom of the sixth, and the Phillies have the lead, 3-2.

A group of four guys approaches our table. One is carrying a cordless microphone and wearing a red t-shirt plastered with a picture of Steve Irwin and the words “Do it for Steve. Beat the Rays!” The world was still reeling from the death of Irwin, a popular Australian television host known as the “The Crocodile Hunter,” who died from a stingray attack in September 2006.

One of the guys starts interviewing Brenda about her love for baseball and for her home team.

As she’s gushing about how she’s waited her whole life for a world championship victory from a Philly team, I’m still contemplating eating a buffalo wing.

The Rays return Jenkins’ run, setting the score as Phillies 3, Rays 3. We’re heading into the bottom of the 7th inning.

“C’mon Philly, we could still win this!” my friend Sean shouts, his face red with emotion.

“Can I get anyone anything else?” The waitress asks, breaking into my bubble of thought with what happens to be the perfect question. I quickly open the spiral-bound menu and flip to Appetizers.

Given the heightened emotional state of Sean, my friends, this bar, and the city of Philadelphia, it seemed like the right time.

“I’ll take the buffalo chicken wings. In hot,” I say.

Brenda, having returned from her interview, turns to me and delivers a quick high five. “Yeah, Sarah!” she shouts. “You’re going to be an instant fan.”

A Win for the Phans

I do become a fan, but later that evening, I’m an even bigger Phillies fan.

“Lidge has done it!” Joe Buck shouts. “The Philadelphia Phillies are the 2008 World Series Champions!” Relief pitcher Brad Lidge drops to his knees after striking out pinch hitter Eric Rinske in top of the 9th and holding the Phillies’ 4-3 lead. Catcher Carlos Ruiz drops his mitt and bounds across the rain-streaked dirt, running toward Lidge with his arms stretched wide. The rest of the Phillies are dashing to the pitcher’s mound, jumping on each other and pumping their fists along the way. Legendary broadcaster Harry Kalas begins singing “High Hopes” as the TV screens fill with confetti spraying across the field.