Sports fans be warned: Mutant chicken wings are taking over America.
Thanks to modern factory farming methods, chickens keep getting bigger and bigger. Which means those chicken wings are just ballooning in size, with more meat than ever surrounding wing bones.
And it’s causing a new “crisis” for restaurants and supermarkets.
The mutant wing crisis is the latest in what’s been a tumultuous season for chicken wings in America. And yes: America actually has a “chicken wing season.”
No, it may not involve a jolly fat guy around midnight dipping them in ranch dressing as he stops for a snack on his international mission as a brand ambassador for toy makers everywhere or an oversized rabbit hiding them in potted plants, but from about the first weekend in February (Super Bowl) all through March (Madness), Americans can’t seem to get enough of them.
Early on there was a bit of a “scare” (swiftly debunked) that the U.S. might have to endure some kind of chicken wing shortage this year, after the National Chicken Council issued a pre-Super Bowl press release that cited last year’s drought (and subsequent rise in feed prices) as responsible for a drop in chicken production.
(It seems like it was just the industry group’s lame attempt to grouse about lawmakers in Washington, as the group singled out “a federal government requirement that mandates 40 percent of our corn crop be turned into fuel in the form of ethanol.”)
Now, it seems, the “problem” isn’t that there’s not enough chicken wings to go around, but there’s too much—at least too much meat on the bone. As Time reports, chickens are getting bigger all around, which means bigger chicken wings. And while other parts of the chicken (breasts, thighs, etc.) are sold by weight, wings are typically sold, well, by wing.
That seems like it would be a great deal for wing lovers (there’s more wing on your plate of a dozen wings), but restaurants are quickly catching on. It’s no surprise that Buffalo Wild Wings, a chain that stakes its name on the wet-nap wonders, is one of the first.
The chain is in the process of testing a new pricing strategy, in which customers will no longer order a specified number of wings but “single, double or triple” plates or “snack, platter or meal.”
In test-marketing the new strategy, CEO Sally Smith tells Nation’s Restaurant News that, so far, most customers haven’t cried “fowl.”
“I think a lot of it has to do with how we explain to our guests,” Smith says, “whether we’re serving five wings for a small order or six wings and making sure that the guest understands.”
OK, but what’s behind this phenomenon of the burgeoning bird? I swear, when I cook, say, chicken breasts at home, it seems they’ve gotten creepily huge, to the point where I have to almost double the cooking times in old recipes or risk a bubble-gum center and a juicy case of salmonella.
At this rate, forget turkey for Thanksgiving; you’ll just be able to haul a 14-pound chicken to the table instead.
Although breeding chickens has gone high-tech, it’s not so much that there’s some nefarious underground Big Bird Project going on at some lab somewhere, a Dr. Strangelove bid to grow bowling-ball-sized chickens through genetic engineering and liberal use of steroids. It appears to be more or less old-fashioned breeding taken to new heights.
As Matt Ridley wrote in the Wall Street Journal a while back, 21st-century chickens reach their “kill weight” in a third of the time their counterparts back in the 1950s, and on a third less feed. Ridley asserts that’s good news for the environment (e.g., less feed means less waste), though I’m sure that’s debatable, given what we know about factory farms. Just don’t be surprised if one day, your chicken wing looks more like a pterodactyl’s.
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Jason Best has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council. He writes about food, sustainability and the environment.