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Chicken wing eaters pig out in Buffalo

By Neale Gulley

BUFFALO, New York (Reuters) - Fried food fanatics flocked over the weekend to the birthplace of the chicken wing, paying more than lip service to one of the nation's favorite snacks at the 10th annual National Buffalo Wing Festival.

Donning foam rubber hats in the shape of drumsticks, thousands of attendees from all 50 U.S. states and 32 countries flocked to the city's minor league baseball stadium at Coca Cola Field, where they feasted on some 50 tons of chicken -- about 750,000 wings -- ordered for the two-day event.

"It's definitely something that we're proud of," Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown said of the city's favorite delicacy, which consists of a chicken wing section fried and coated in sauce.

Festival founder Drew Cerza, sporting a custom hockey jersey with the words "Wing King" ironed on the back, said he started the event after a 2001 movie "Osmosis Jones" featured actor Bill Murray as a fried food junkie planning a trip to Buffalo to attend a chicken wing festival.

Problem was, at the time no such festival existed.

"It was like a 'no, duh' moment. I thought, why shouldn't Buffalo have a festival? What's funny is that people here ask, well, why would you? You can just go down the street and get wings," he said.

Local newspaper columnist Donn Esmonde pondered the disconnect in his column around the time the movie was released in 2001. Then Cerza took action.

"Usually movies come from real-life stories and this is reality knocking off Hollywood," he said.

For the festival's main event on Sunday, world-renowned "competitive eaters" including Joey Chestnut and defending title-holder Sonya Thomas battled on the main stage with about a dozen others for the title of wing-eating champion.

When the dust settled, the 100-pound Thomas continued her streak as the reigning five-time champion, consuming 183 wings in 12 minutes to Chestnut's 174, setting a new world record.

Buffalo wings, as they are known outside of western New York state, were invented at the Anchor Bar in downtown Buffalo, when restaurant owners Frank and Teressa Bellissimo first whipped up a batch for a group of hungry youths more than four decades ago.

New York City residents Gretchen Gonzalez and John Zeman marked the event by getting married as thousands watched. Zeman wore a custom "tuxedo" patterned T-shirt complete with fake hot sauce stains as Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown did the honors.

The pair walked off stage to an impromptu musical selection of Sir Mix A Lot's "Baby Got Back" as Cerza and others pelted the newlyweds with the traditional hot wing garnish of celery sticks in lieu of rice.

"Any time anyone asks me about home they ask me about chicken wings," said Gonzalez, a Buffalo native. "So I said why not plan our wedding around the chicken wing festival?"

Victor Guerra of Minnesota joined 62 relatives from 10 states in left field of the stadium for a family reunion.

"I wanted my family here to experience this," said Guerra, who is a student in the Buffalo area. "We like wings."

Mike Cain, from Jacksonville, Fla., was among those gathered for the reunion. Between mouthfuls, he said Buffalo's chicken wing notoriety was earned one wing at a time.

"I think they take it more seriously ... everything's better here," he said.

Cerza agreed.

"Buffalo has good chicken wing karma," he said.

(Editing by Peter Bohan)

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