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Take That Chicken Wing and Eat It
By Donn Esmonde, The Buffalo News
And early in the evening of the second day, Drew Cerza rested.
The man who put the National Buffalo Wing Festival where it belonged sat in the bleachers of the downtown ballpark late Sunday and surveyed the scene.
Thousands milled about the stadium outfield munching wings, pushing baby strollers and scoping out the Miss Buffalo Wing contest. (What exactly are her duties, anyway?)
Cerza is the married father of two small girls who runs a food promotions company. He's a can-do guy who thought he could do this. He staked $100,000 on it. The bet paid off.
Cerza won't know for weeks if he made money. He thinks about 45,000 (including kids) came, more than even he'd hoped. But in a way it doesn't matter.
You measure success in more than dollars and numbers. You measure it in fun and civic pride and a shot of national publicity for a needy city. In all those ways, this was a winner.
"It doesn't matter whether I made money," said Cerza, a nice guy who finished first. "Just look at everybody out there."
Chicken wings were invented here. Buffalo wings are served in restaurants from New York to Nagano. It's nearly impossible to watch a football game without them. The tail has been wagging for decades. This weekend, we finally connected the dog to it.
It worked because people made sure it would - the people who came, the 300 volunteers who hauled the trash and took the tickets, the folks Cerza worked with. The idea was a natural for a city that takes so many beatings, self-inflicted and otherwise.
The idea was to cement the connection between the wing and the city, to show the country we've got something to cluck about.
Countless newspapers and radio stations picked up on it. "The Today Show" and CNN did pieces. BBC London called. The Food Network was here all weekend.
"Nobody starts this big," said TFN's Tyler Young. "It was unbelievably well-organized, and people here were just psyched."
It started last summer with "Osmosis Jones," a movie about a junk food-addicted dad (Bill Murray) taking his daughter to the national wing festival in Buffalo. It prompted a column here, calling for a real national wingfest. Cerza read it and - given his food, promotions and charity contacts - figured he was the guy.
It crested late Sunday afternoon, with the crowning - as thousands cheered - of national wing-eating champion Oleg Zhornitsky, who really is from the Ukraine (believe me, I tried to talk to him). Emcee George Shea announced the 12-minute ode to gluttony like a WWF smackdown.
That's Buffalo: Eat, have fun, don't take yourself too seriously. We all know that humility is only a blizzard away.
What seemed as easy as falling out of bed was really a string of crises. In true Buffalo fashion, Cerza was bailed out by friends old and new - all determined to make sure this wouldn't fail.
He found out Saturday morning his electrical blueprint was useless. The electrician, Joe Romanowski, told Cerza he didn't care what the screw-up was, he'd make it work.
By Sunday, the grease pit was nearly full. He called Phil Tarantino, the food distributor who'd stored the 20 tons of wings. Tarantino trucked in 50-gallon drums.
"I call him at home on a holiday weekend," said Cerza, "and all he says is, "No problem."
It was the same thing with 300 volunteers, ranging from Cerza's charity contacts (he's a Food Bank board member) to city finance commissioner Eva Hassett, who took tickets. The spirit extended to the crowd - no rowdiness, few complaints.
"We ran out of wings, we had people Saturday waiting a half-hour," said Joe Dotterweich of Buffalo Joe's in Houston. "But no complaining from anybody."
Perfect? No. It needs shorter food lines, more restaurants, more festival-type fun - magicians, jugglers, Irish step dancers - and fewer high-volume assaults from an emcee with no Off switch. But those are opening-year glitches. This thing will only get bigger.
For decades, we've had the wing. Now we've got the festival to go with it.
Buffalo, take a bow.
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