The Hot Wings of Memphis

“Buffalo may have created hot wings,” says Memphis Travel Magazine, “but Memphis perfected them.” Growing from the city’s barbeque culture that helped define Southern cuisine writ large, Memphis’s hot wing habit is broadly and deeply established. With more than 200 wing establishments—from food trucks to fine(ish) dining—Memphis calls itself the Hot Wing Capital of the World.

So perhaps it’s no surprise that when Katori Hall set a fourth play in her hometown, she chose Memphis’s food culture as the backdrop for her look at chosen family and the Black men in love. Like the three-part taste profile of the most noteworthy wings—the tang of the marinade, the smoke in the cooking, the sweet-spicy or spicy-sweet finishing sauces—The Hot Wing King is multi-layered and deeply pleasing.

In the play, Cordell is whipping his crew into shape to compete in the annual Hot Wing Festival. In the real Memphis, 2022 marks the 20th anniversary of the city’s World Championship Hot Wing Contest and Festival. With over 100 teams competing for top scores, it’s a contest that has started arguments, expanded the taste profile of hot wings, and launched, if not a thousand, than dozens of the city’s wing joints.

For the general public, the Festival is a chance to listen to music, wander outside, and gorge on $1-a-plate wings. (Over the past 19 Festivals, WCHWCF has raised more than $300,000 for Ronald McDonald House charities in the area.) For cooks with a dream, though, it’s the entry point to more permanent opportunities. And although Cordell’s restaurant isn’t even a dream, for a new-to-town cook with a solid crew behind him, the Festival is a contest—and crown—that could change what’s possible.

Adrien-Alice Hansel