The one thing most Americans can agree on? Chicken wings.
Did you know that nearly 8 of every 10 American adults would identify as a chicken wing eater?
That's what participants told Harris Interactive polling service in 2013, on behalf of the National Chicken Council. Surprisingly, wing popularity doesn't vary much by gender: 77% of women eat wings compared with 82% of men.
Status as a chicken wing eater also transcends political differences: The chicken council’s chief economist and market analyst at the time, Bill Roenigk, said in a press release, "We also know that [chicken wings] are nonpartisan and politically independent. That is, there are really no extreme left wings or extreme right wings." (People who work in food professionally can’t help but make food puns — trust me, I’m one of them.)
In all seriousness, amid unprecedented levels of divisiveness and toxic rhetoric in today’s social climate, chicken wings can bring us together. With Super Bowl Sunday upon us, and chicken wings the best-selling dish of the day, what unites us as anything in America is more worth understanding this year than perhaps ever before.
The number of Americans who care about the Super Bowl was high from the start and has grown significantly. Seven out of 8 of America's most-watched events on TV have been Super Bowls. It’s not just bros watching: 46% of Super Bowl viewers are female. According to the Washington Post, more women watch the Super Bowl than the Oscars, Grammys and Emmys combined.
Why do Americans love the Super Bowl?
You've got this championship game happening every year, and a bunch of homes decked out with elaborate entertainment systems with wide-screen TVs, and all of this led to a whole new fixture in U.S. society: the Super Bowl party. It became one of the most universally appealing activities on the calendar. Friends and family huddle in someone's den, order in delicious food or make it themselves, drink lots of beer and even build "snackadiums," aka stadiums made out of party snacks.
So basically, Americans love the Super Bowl because some of them like football, most of them like day drinking and all of them like feasting. We eat more on average per person on Super Bowl Sunday than on any other day of the year except Thanksgiving.
About the wings
What is it about chicken wings — and more generally, about the annual gorging that comes with the Super Bowl — that feels so core to us as Americans?
They check three of the essential boxes of the American food psyche: They are meat. They are cheap. And they are customizable.
Let's start with the meat. We live in the land of plenty, and consuming big slabs of animal has long been part of our national identity. We're known for barbecue and burgers, with the average American consuming three burgers a week. Super Bowl parties likely include multiple types of meat, not just wings, as it's the second biggest weekend of the year for grilling, surpassed only by the Fourth of July. That's a pretty big deal when you consider that the game takes place in February.
As for cheap, chicken wings appeared in U.S. markets because of the trend in the 1980s away from whole cooked birds to boneless, skinless breasts. It was part of the whole SnackWell's nonfat cookies thing and a decades-long fat scare. The wing became a byproduct as chicken producers singled out the more coveted breasts, and they sold the wings at low prices. If you're hosting a Super Bowl party, wings are a wallet-friendly way to feed the whole gang, and it helps that pizza delivery chains like Domino's have them on the menu.
Finally, wings are one of the few foods that are both shareable for groups of friends and family, yet also customizable to the individual, thanks to the various dips and sauces. One of the traits that most distinguishes us as Americans is individualism, with free will among our most prized national values. And whether we realize it or not, as a result, we feel it's our right to personalize our eating experiences, tailoring them to our unique dietary and flavor preferences. So if I like ranch dressing, and you like hot sauce, why shouldn't you, in the words of Burger King, "Have it your way?"
All in all, it's estimated that a head scratching 1.25 billion chicken wings will be consumed on Super Bowl Sunday alone.
About the feasting
In addition to wings, pizza and beer also top the list of foods that "index high," according to the consumer insights firm the NPD Group. This means they are foods that people eat a great deal more of on Super Bowl Sunday compared to any other Sunday.
If the chili smells good enough and the cake is decorated like a giant football, some of us will go to the trouble of finding utensils. But for the millions who cook instead of ordering takeout for Super Bowl parties, finger foods rule the day: nachos, meatball subs, pulled pork sliders, deviled eggs and dips galore: spinach dip, artichoke dip, bacon-cheese dip, seven-layer taco dip, "take the only thing left at the grocery store and mix it with cream cheese" dip.
Chicken wings, once again, are finger food. What all these foods say about us as Americans is: By and large, we shrug at refinement. Bucking urbanity goes back to at least the early 1800s, when we mostly ate with knives, jabbing them right into a pot of food. It's the same reason we'll try wine in a can, or that Trader Joe's is one of America's favorite grocery stores. And boy is that aspect of our collective character something The Donald picked up on.
Now, as someone whose day job is trying to get people to eat healthier, typically I would focus on the calorie implications of the over-the-top spreads and full-throttle gorge fest. But at the moment, we have some more acute concerns, and I'm looking for whatever common ground I can find.
What explains the free-for-all is the fact that the Super Bowl has become a national holiday in American society. Research shows that we operate under a completely different set of rules and norms for holiday food versus regular food. You see, Super Bowl Sunday marks the end of "eating season" in America, which starts around Halloween and runs through the winter holidays. While we tend to think that Jan. 1 means we all hit the gym and start drinking green juice, Super Bowl Sunday is actually our final blowout — one last shoveling before swimsuit season.
To see the parallels with official holidays, just consider the wreckage the day after: Over 1 million people call in sick, more than any other day of the year. This happens for the same reason it does after Thanksgiving or Christmas: too much. (Antacid sales also increase the next day, by 20%, according to 7-Eleven.)
The proof is also in the productivity plummet. Thanks to our shared distraction on Super Bowl Monday, our economy takes a billion-dollar hit, as estimated by the global outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas.
So why not spare people the indignity of calling in "sick" and give them the day off? Enter the grassroots movement to declare the day after the Super Bowl a national holiday. It has been backed by thousands of signatures on the official petition website of the White House.
Needless to say, there's a lot of tension in this country right now. About big, messy issues. Inequality and immigration, climate change and education. The kids have locked up the baby sitter and are running amok in the White House, discriminating on the basis of religion and trying to build an actual wall, for goodness' sake.
For better or worse, the bottom line is that the Super Bowl unites us.
At least, it unites a lot more of us than just about anything else does. At no other moment in the year are boundaries of race and religion, rural and urban, crossed in such a way.
Advocates of official holiday status argue it could reduce drunk driving and other bad things resulting from Sunday night. But the more timely arguments are to recognize the single most popular event in our culture and promote camaraderie among Americans. And you know what? They're onto something! We desperately need something we can all rally around. Even if that holiday status means we might chow down till we can't see straight.