January 30, 2009
Statistically speaking, Super Bowl Sunday occupies only 0.27 percent of any given year. And yet about 5 percent of the nation’s chicken wings are eaten on that day – the product of a staggering 300 million chickens, according to figures released by the National Chicken Council.
Try one and you’ll see why they’re the perfect Super Bowl food. They’re crispy, greasy, slathered in sauce, and piping hot. They require no utensils and can be dunked into blue cheese dressing without letting go of your beer or – if the odd drip on the carpet doesn’t bother you – without even looking away from the TV. And they contain so little actual food that practiced snackers can eat dozens of them before their stomachs begin to notice.
And yet this year we coast into the big weekend under the shadow of a chicken wing shortage. Chicken wing prices are up more than 25 percent, and some chicken fryers say they simply can’t afford to serve them. All signs point to the twin scapegoats of the economic downturn and the spike in gas (and grain) prices. Some farmers this summer simply couldn’t afford to raise chickens, and a major chicken supplier in Texas filed for bankruptcy in December.
But here at Food & Think, we don’t just report mildly alarmist news about junk-food shortages. We look for whatever scientific tidbits might lurk behind those stories. And you know what? The odd plate of crispy fried wings has indeed advanced the cause of science a time or two. In 2007, Chinese researchers discovered a way to help rid deep-fried foods of a toxic frying byproduct using a bamboo extract. They tested it with chicken wings.
It turns out that heating food in vats of oil sooner or later produces a substance called acrylamide that causes cancer in laboratory animals and can damage human nervous systems. The chemical causes its damage by oxidizing important parts of cells, including your DNA. That’s one reason why foods containing antioxidants are thought to be so healthy. They stop the actions of molecules like acrylamide before they get rolling.
The Chinese researchers knew that bamboo leaves contain antioxidants, so they ran some tests. Tests involving five kinds of chicken wings and a spice mix I’d like to try, consisting of flour, pepper, sesame, sugar, salt, ginseng, Chinese wolfberry, and the enigmatic “chicken essence.”
To this mixture they added a sprinkling of bamboo extract (0.05 percent of the spice weight proved most effective), then fried the wings. In subsequent tests, acrylamide levels in the chicken wings had dropped by more than half in the wings treated with bamboo compared with untreated wings. Happier still, after volunteers ate the wings they reported no difference in appearance or taste of the bamboo-enhanced recipe. The authors couldn’t resist a little pride in their article abstract, writing
This study could be regarded as a pioneer contribution to the reduction of acrylamide in various foods by natural antioxidants.
As an aside, the researchers noted that most of the acrylamide formed on the batter, not on the chicken itself. So if you don’t have any bamboo extract on hand, you still have a couple of ways to safeguard your health: Either don’t deep-fry your wings, or don’t batter them. For the first option, I might be tempted by these oven-baked Panko-Crusted Pepper-Parmesan Wings.
For the second, you could try my own top-secret invention, Buffalo Soldier Wings. This never-before-revealed recipe involves briefly marinating the wings in a lime-yogurt sauce that has been mixed with spicy curried onions and parsley, then grilling the whole lot for 25 minutes or until delicious. No dip required. In fact, you don’t even really need a Superbowl.
Looking for more last-minute wing ideas? Find more recipes here.
Sign up for our free email newsletter and receive the best stories from Smithsonian.com each week.