People send me a lot of DVDs. I don’t have numbers to cite, but suffice to say, it’s more than I could ever watch, and way, way more than I could ever reasonably expect you to read reviews of. Every day I walk by the ever-growing pile of the sad, the unwatched, the disc-shaped mass, and feel a momentary pang of guilt, but I offer no good solutions. A few weeks ago, The Great Chicken Wing Hunt was one of those DVDs. The only thing differentiating it from the rest were the bottle of red-orange wing sauce it came with and a letter from the director, Matt Reynolds (pictured, in beer shirt). “If you can spare five minutes to watch the beginning,” it read, “You will get a good sense of whether the remaining 66 minutes are for you.”
That sounded thoroughly reasonable, and I’m always amenable to food-related bribes. So I watched the first five minutes of The Great Chicken Wing Hunt as instructed, then five minutes after that, then five more, all the way to the end. And now I’m writing a review, the highest praise I can give an unsolicited DVD. (Wing Hunt has since been made available on iTunes, Hulu, and a variety of VOD platforms).
I watch a preposterous amount of food-related television, but before I watched Wing Hunt, I probably would’ve cast serious doubt on the assertion that finding the world’s best chicken wing was worthy of a feature-length documentary. I mean, I like chicken wings, but I also like french fries. I don’t think I’d want to watch someone scour the world for the world’s best fry. As Mitch Hedberg would say, “Aw, man, can’t I just have some?” A fry in my hand is worth 1000 on my TV, so to speak.
The press notes for Wing Hunt tout a pull quote calling it “The Big Lebowski of documentaries.” I don’t know if I’d go that far, but it’s similarly the story of a wacky quest where the bumps along the way matter more than the destination. As much as it pains me to break into that old PR tour chestnut “on the surface it’s a story about (what it says in the title), but at it’s heart it’s actually a story about (vague concept like “love” or “family”),” what makes The Great Chicken Wing Hunt so watchable is that it’s as much about its oddball characters as it is about their quest. It’s at least as much “what is it driving these people to put their jobs and lives on hold in order to search for the best chicken wing?” as it is “who makes the world’s best chicken wing?” Both questions are answered with reasonable catharsis.
So who are these characters? The ringleader, Matt Reynolds, is a Buffalo native who moved to Slovakia in early adulthood, where he found love and a comfortable job as a writer for Reuters in Bratislava. What he didn’t find were chicken wings, which he loved so much growing up that he gave himself a Frank’s Red Hot-induced ulcer at the age of seven. He cooked them for his new Slovakian friends, discovering that there’s a certain universality to chicken wings – everyone loves them. And unlike hot dogs or hamburgers or pizza, Buffalo wings are peculiarly American, with a lineage that can be traced, to 1960s Buffalo. Reynolds got it in his head that this was a history worth telling, and that he was the one to tell it.
He put out a call for wing enthusiasts looking to join him in this quest, which in the end, consisted of a professional eater/sideshow performer named Thor, an old hippie named Al, a Hawaiian doctor with a pregnant wife, and an upstate New York wing lover full of mid-life ennui. So at 31, with his Czech girlfriend Lucie in tow, Reynolds left his job at Reuters and packed off into an RV with his self-selecting group of oddballs and a Slovak film crew, for a 16-day journey across the wing belt, through upstate New York and Eastern Pennsylvania, with forays into Vermont and Canada. Along the way, we learn, among other things, that one of the Slovaks, Maros, eats his wings bones and all. Yep, the whole bone, like a KFC commercial. Being raised in an Eastern Bloc economy of scarcity can turn you into a superhero, apparently.
Reynolds structures Wing Hunt almost as a sort of travelogue, and the beauty of it is that he doesn’t ignore the question of whether this is a worthwhile quest to begin with, even while trying to sell us on it. Reynolds has convinced his girlfriend to relocate just as they’re trying to start a life together, and he has to try to lead a cast and crew, who get understandably crabby from eating nothing but spicy chicken wings for two weeks, on a journey that he may not entire believe in himself. On any quest, it’s rarely the generalities that make it interesting, it’s the small details – what did you eat? Where did you sleep? How did it smell? Did you want to kill each other?
The root of all good non-fiction is people and place, and not only is Wing Hunt strong in that regard, it’s partly an exploration of what it means to be of a place. Specifically, a crumbling, rust-belt underdog city from a Springsteen song like Buffalo. Reynolds includes interviews with people who were there for the inception of the Buffalo wing (bickering, foul-mouthed old Italians, to be specific, some of the best interview subjects), and food critics who talk reverently about the Buffalo wing being the only truly American food. At the beginning of the film, you can tell that Reynolds sees this statement mostly as something that sounds good to say, the kind of PR that sells a film. But as the film goes on, you can see him slowly start to believe it. As one of his Slovakian crew tells him during a boozy moment of clarity, “I think I get it now. When you eat Buffalo wings, you understand what it means to be American, the same way a Slovakian knows what it means to be a Slovak when he eats a sheep’s cheese dumpling.”
Another Slovak counters, “But can you imagine a Slovak wearing a hat made out of a sheep’s cheese dumpling?”
It was moments like this, where you can simultaneously both believe a hokey sentiment and poke it with a critical eye, that made The Great Chicken Wing Hunt a winner for me. Well, that, and the sauce.
Here’s a batch of the wings I cooked for the Super Bowl, pre-sauce. Technically, traditional Buffalo wings aren’t breaded, but I felt like that was pragmatic decision and not a culinary one, and a light flouring makes the sauce stick better, but that’s just me.
Vince Mancini is a writer and comedian living in San Francisco. You can find more of his work on FilmDrunk, the Uproxx network, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.