Chicken wings are an American classic and one of the most popular game day foods in the country. In 2020, an estimated 1.4 billion wings were eaten on Super Bowl Sunday alone. But what city has the best wings to offer?
Many would argue that Buffalo, New York, is the chicken wing capital of America. After all, it’s where buffalo wings were invented and got their name. Those from the South, however, know that a different city with a different style of wings destroys their Northern competition: Memphis.
Jeremy Donald knows this as well as anyone. He worked at Crumpy’s Hot Wings in Memphis for close to ten years before coming to Knoxville to attend the University of Tennessee. But he couldn’t find anywhere in the Scruffy City with Southern, Memphis-style wings worthy of his time and money.
“When I got [to Knoxville], after going to all these different places and eating wings, it just wasn’t the same.” Donald said.
So Donald began making his own wings to satisfy his cravings. Before long, Donald opened his own wing company, called Nappy Wingz.
“Once I graduated, it came down to what I was going to do,” Donald said. “A buddy of mine, Charles Mosley, gave me $100, and he said, ‘I really think you got something going with your wings,’ so I turned $100 into $800 [with that batch] and since then, [Nappy Wingz] has been a thing.”
In doing so, he inadvertently started a revolution in Knoxville, dedicated to bringing authentic Memphis-style wings from one end of the state to the other.
“The flavor [of Memphis-style wings] is just different,” Donald said.
A year ago, entrepreneur Christopher ‘Moe’ Bright moved to Knoxville from Middle Tennessee. He started out catering food before buying his own restaurant space in Mechanicsville in November, giving Knoxville another Memphis-style wing restaurant to call its own: Moe Beez.
So what makes Memphis-style wings so different from Buffalo-style? Bright argues that both the preparation and flavor distinguish Memphis’s wings from the competition.
“When we started, no one here had the wings like we did,” Bright said. “We fry our wings naked and then toss them in our different flavors. No one offered that here in Knoxville.”
And while Bright is not originally from Memphis, his mentor Larry ‘Pops’ Adams taught him how to make wings and fish in Nashville.
“I made my own little twist with the Memphis game,” Bright said. “Because the Memphis wings had been around with the honey gold and the lemon pepper. … It was a great opportunity to bring that to Knoxville.”
Honey gold wings are a staple of the Memphis wing scene. Both Bright and Donald offer them on their menus and count them among their most popular flavors. It tastes unlike any other wing flavor in the country: a subtly sweet, tangy, savory sauce that needs to be tried to be understood.
“A lot of people are looking for my honey gold and honey hot,” Donald said.
Bright agrees and offers flavor combinations that build off the traditional honey gold.
“We have the signature honey gold, but I like to mix it up. I can make a hot honey gold, a lemon pepper honey gold, a ranch honey gold, a Knoxville hot honey gold, a Moe hot honey gold,” he said. “I guess they call me a mixologist with that.”
Both Moe Beez and Nappy Wingz count one major demographic among their top customers: University of Tennessee athletes, who have a huge appetite for authentic Memphis wings.
“The [Tennessee football] team likes our wings,” Bright said. “I catered them the day after Thanksgiving, and it was big. So we did 3,500 wings for the team, and they ate them. They ate them all. That was crazy.”
But it’s not just Tennessee students who love the Memphis-style wings spots popping up in Knoxville. The critics enjoy them as well.
In 2018, Donald and his Nappy Wingz team entered the Big Kahuna Wing Festival competition. Despite showing up to the contest with a broken fryer, Nappy Wingz won nearly all of the awards at the festival, including Champion.
“We were getting another 40-pound case of chicken every fifteen minutes,” Donald said, “just because our lines were that long, and we had that big of a demand.”
And now that Moe Beez has been up and running for a few months, Bright is excited to enter his first Big Kahuna competition in 2020 and make his mark on the Knoxville wing-eating community. Thanks to Bright and Donald, Memphis-style wings have finally made their mark in Knoxville.
“It’s a Southern thing. It’s a Tennessee thing. It’s a Memphis thing,” Bright said. “I think it’s going to be major here.”