Living life between the barrel staves in Bourbon Country

The King of Wings

I first saw him out of the corner of my eye, and had it been a normal patron I probably would not have taken notice. But even in my peripheral vision I could tell the man was out of place. Harry’s is, to put it mildly, a suburban sports bar attached to a fine dining steak house. You come here to eat, drink – or in most cases – some combination of the above. In warmer weather the patio is always packed, the drinks flow freely, and the sushi chef spends as much time catering to bar patrons as he does those in the main dining room. On this particular afternoon I was comfortably ensconced on a stool in the main bar, staring up at one of the dozen or so flat screen TV’s showing every NFL game playing that day. It was still early, barely 1pm, and the bar was not yet close to capacity, its normal occupancy level on most such days. So when the stranger walked in the absence of other patrons caused me to take more notice of him than I would have had the Sunday afternoon rush already arrived. To say he seemed destined more for the street than the suburbs would be an understatement. His clothes were unkempt though not exactly ragged. His physical appearance was of someone who had seen better days.

At the bar where I was the only other occupant he seated himself two stools down from me. The waitress took her time coming over, no doubt feeling much like I did, that the stranger didn’t quite belong. He ordered a Coke and asked for a menu, not as simple a request at Harry’s as you would think. There is the bar menu, the sushi menu and the main restaurant menu depending on your tastes and particular appetite level. I continued to eat my lunch, watching the football game in front of me but keeping one eye trained on the stranger. He poured over the menus, turning pages and flipping back and forth between them as if looking for something. Eventually he found it, sat his menus aside and called over our bartender.

“How do you all cook your wings?” he inquired. The bartender, who was no rookie at his job, seemed somewhat thrown off by the question. “They’re buffalo style wings” he replied, unsure if this the answer the stranger wanted. “I mean how are they cooked” the stranger asked again, “are they fried? Battered?” The bartender, slowly finding himself on firmer ground, seem to realize what the man was looking for and provided an overview of how Harry’s prepares their wings. Fried, not heavily battered, came the reply, then tossed with buffalo sauce and served. “You can get them with Ranch or Blue Cheese dressing,” he added. “And celery.” The stranger seemed unmoved by the choice of accoutrements. “How spicy is the sauce – are they hot?” he asked following up with several additional questions all pertaining to how Harry’s, precisely, serves their wings. After either exhausting his questions or tiring of the bartenders somewhat generic answers, and pondering for a further moment, he asked “Can I get a dozen wings with the sauce on the side?” He could, the bartender confirmed, and wandered off to place the order. While his request was relayed to the kitchen the stranger sat, not looking around, but staring up at the bank of TV’s and sipped his Coke. The break in the action gave me a chance to study the man more closely, and I started to add further observations to my initial impression. His age was difficult to gauge, though I made him to be anywhere from 35 to mid forties. Unshaven but not dirty in hygiene. In his dialogue with the bartender I failed to discern any noticeable accent – he could have been from anywhere. Yet his questions and his seeming unfamiliarity with the establishment pegged him as not a local. He sat staring up at the closest TV paying little attention to the growing noise around him. The game day crowds had started to arrive and the place was filling up quickly. I caught more than one patron approach the bar before giving the stranger a second glance, then seeming to change their mind and take a seat elsewhere. I had seen much worse in this bar over the years, and his actions up to this point had been almost gentlemanly. I started to feel a little sorry for the man, as well as a little guilty myself for initially harboring some similar feelings.

In due course the overly marketed and discussed wings arrived, with sauce on the side. Instead of diving into the platter as I expected, the man seemed to spend a moment taking in the presentation before leaning down, very close to the food, and inhaling its aroma. I had by now become fascinated with my fellow bar patron, and started to think almost fancifully that maybe he was a restaurant critic in disguise. Maybe Sam Sifton or Frank Bruni of The New York Times had decided to come to Lexington for the weekend, post up in the suburbs and write about how we do wings down here in Kentucky. Or perhaps Ruth Reichl had finally started on that post Gourmet magazine career and chose my neighborhood as her launching point. “The bedouin of Arabia have a legend that says ‘When God created the horse, he said to the magnificent creature: I have made thee as no other. All the treasures of the earth shall lie between thy eyes. Thou shalt cast thy enemies between thy hooves, but thou shalt carry my friends upon thy back. Thy saddle shall be the seat of prayers to me. And thou shalt fly without any wings, and conquer without any sword.'” This is how I heard the review starting my head. “What God found no use for in this land of horses” it would continue,”Harry’s in Lexington has picked up what He discarded and themselves created a culinary masterpiece.” Lexington would thus gain the publicity necessary to supplant Buffalo as the home of the wing, and Harry’s would steal the crown from The Anchor Bar where the spicy chicken appendage was first served. Ridiculous of course, and I turned from my daydream back to the stranger. For the questions was, what did he think of the wings? After they apparently passed the smell test he picked up a wing, not at random but after a deliberate appraisal of the twelve specimens offered up for his consumption. He took a bite, then sat the wing down. Uh oh, I though, he didn’t like them. But the stranger I quickly realized – far from expressing displeasure – was simply working his way through a deliberate routine. Next he dragged a finger through the sauce and tasted. Then again taking the wing he had already sampled, dipped it gently into the sauce, and ate it. That is when it dawned on me, My God, I thought, I’m watching a ritual. With increasing fervor he began to attack the platter, and as with all rituals which begin with such ceremony and formality, the deliberateness of his initial foray was forgotten in a frenzy of carnivorous ecstasy. It took little time for the stranger to finish off his meal. When he had he sat back, satiated and somewhat bespeckled in buffalo sauce, and sipped his Coke.

It was time for me to leave. As I paid my check and put on my coat, I stole a glance at the man, having watched what had transpired during his meal without overtly staring at him before. He was wiping the sauce from his face with one hand while licking it from the fingers of his other, and I could see on his face a smile forming – one of absolute contentment. Walking to my car I couldn’t help thinking on the encounter and that somewhere in it lurked a larger lesson. I’m still grasping at what it might be. What I do know is this: on that Sunday afternoon I had been introduced to a man who didn’t conform to my expectations. He was a connoisseur among commoners. Someone who seemed to both not fit his surroundings and at the same time not care, for he was there with a purpose. He was a man who with singular intensity and focus unquestionably knew how to enjoy a meal. I had met, I slowly came to realize, the King of Wings.

And so, as playoff Sunday gives way in 14 days to the Super Bowl, enjoy some of your favorite wings. And when you do, remember to raise one in a silent salute to that mysterious stranger who represents what we should all inspire to be. A man who doesn’t just eat his food, but knows without reservation how to enjoy it.

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