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Feb 28, 2023

Diary of a Chicken Wing Judge

Jesse Blanco

Photography By

Special to CH2/CB2 Magazine
It has become something of an annual rite of spring around here—for me, anyway. There are a lot of people who obviously look forward to warmer temperatures. Many more look forward to anything green and all the festivities that come along with it in this region. Generally speaking, the menfolk look forward to getting out […]

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It has become something of an annual rite of spring around here—for me, anyway. There are a lot of people who obviously look forward to warmer temperatures. Many more look forward to anything green and all the festivities that come along with it in this region. Generally speaking, the menfolk look forward to getting out on the links with some increased regularity. It’s all part of the deal around here. I personally look forward to most of that, although I haven’t played a round of golf in over a decade. But that’s a story for another time.

No, instead, I look forward to eating outdoors more often. At home, I grill more. But I also very much look forward to the Hilton Head Island Wing Fest. 2023 will mark 26 years for this great event, and I’ve had the honor of being one of four or five judges the last several years.

We usually gather in a secret location and are brought a steady flow of wings for roughly an hour. There are no names. The entries are simply numbered so there is no favoritism. I think last year we had 18 entries of the roughly 25-26 restaurants that participated in Wingfest. I’m sure most of you are thinking this is a dream job, and in many ways it is. If someone asked you to sit in a room and eat wings for an hour with some beer nearby, you’d trip all over yourself to get in on that action. But it is not all fun and games.

For starters, eating 18-20 wings in an hour is a lot. It is for me. We aren’t required to eat them all, of course. We are judging, not “eating” if that makes sense. A bite or two and we generally know where we stand with a particular wing. 

Of course, there are wings we love more than others, so those get devoured. Some wings barely get a second look because they underwhelmed. Yeah, some of them are quickly filed in the “what the heck were they thinking?” department never to be looked at again. Usually that happens when we are given a flavor profile that is so far out in left field that the execution falls way short of the idea. It may have sounded good in theory, but by the time it gets to judges, we sit around looking at each other wondering why someone would overthink an entry so dramatically.

More than once I have wondered aloud why someone doesn’t strive to make the perfect buffalo wing and call it a day. You’d be surprised how few do. Instead, we are handed wings like Pickle Juice Banana-Raspberry Mocha Frappucino and Peanut Butter wings. I’m being silly, but you get the picture. Sometimes keeping it simple but crushing your execution will go much further to impress the judges.

The same applies to the common doughnut shop. I don’t need doughnuts with candy bars on them to be impressed. Give me the best glazed doughnut or chocolate dipped I’ve ever had, and you will have my loyalty forever.

Now I want to be clear; I don’t want sound like I am trying to squash any creativity when it comes to the wings we get at Wingfest. There are literally dozens of flavors to choose from, and so many of them sound amazing. I saw one last year that looked like it was deep fried like an elephant ear and covered in powdered sugar. Yes, It was a chicken wing.

What I am saying, however, is that what you offer the public should be different than what is offered to judges. The judges are looking for creativity, but more isn’t always better. We look forward to your offerings.

If you love chicken wings, it really is one of the best days of the year on the island. Once again, the venue is Lowcountry Celebration Park on the south end of the island. You pay a nominal entrance fee and then buy tickets that are good for wings. If you buy in advance, you get a discount on the tickets. You can find what they are offering at hiltonheadwingfest.com. There’s a chicken wing eating contest, live music, fun for kids and a whole lot more.

Consider this something of a cheat sheet for anyone you know who may be entering the contest this year. I know it is competitive, and winning matters to so many of our entrants.

I look forward to eating and liking on Saturday, March 18 at Lowcountry Celebration Park.

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