* Warning: Hundreds of chickens were harmed in the making of this article.
If you’d like to confuse a server right quick, a delightful way to go about it involves sitting down and busting out a scientific scale and a sheet of plasticized graph paper with tick-marks down to the millimeter at your table. Then, when you’ve eaten, refuse to let them remove your basket of seemingly cashed chicken wing bones.
“Oh, we’re not done with those yet,” my dining companion demurs, ever so politely.
JD Hovland and I meet in mid-March, in the waning days of his self-appointed “Wings of Winter” project. Simply put, this was an exercise mostly consisting of eating wings at a different Twin Cities establishment every day until we were buoyed into the fresh spring air. A computer software engineer by day, Hovland has suggested a rendezvous at the Lowertown Bulldog for a couple baskets of their dry rub. The timing was fortuitous; it was just two days after they’d taken top honors at Treasure Island Casino’s Wings and Brew competition. News of these accolades surprises him: “I did not know that,” he chuckles coolly.
Across the table from me, Hovland maintains a reserved demeanor befitting his day job. He comes across as extraordinarily cultured. He recently traveled to Japan—ostensibly for a work conference, but just as much to sample a dish he’d read about in Mouthfeel: How Texture Makes Taste. He also seems to have a system for everything.
Wings of Winter entered my world when Hovland ambled into my former workplace, where he’s a regular. While I ran around like a frazzled hen, he’d take a seat, book or Kindle in hand, and eventually the staff would pry out of him what he’d been up to. One day, he mentioned a nerdy project involving chicken wings... then showed me graphs and spreadsheets with just a fraction of the data on chickens he’d collected, stored in his phone.
My curiosity was piqued.
“I really like wings, but I’d never order them, because it’s like, an appetizer or something,” Hovland confesses. “I was like, ‘I wonder what other wings I haven’t had that are really good, that don’t get any credit because not many people know the place has wings, or the people that go there aren’t the type to vote on polls online, or nominate things.’”
A true Northerner, Hovland was also bracing for winter’s shack-wackies. “The primary impetus was to avoid cabin fever. It’s like, I know how to cook baked goods and stuff... I’m not an outdoor person in the winter, but I don’t like being stuck at home, either.”
Thus, Wings of Winter became an exploration into all things wing, under the banner of a punny hat-tip to George R.R. Martin’s Winds of Winter, that never-arriving sixth book in his Song of Ice and Fire series. Admittedly, Hovland modeled the rigorous, data-driven nature of his project after Christopher St. Cavish’s Shanghai Soup Dumpling Index, but the subject matter ensures that’s where the similarities end.
A simplified version of Wings of Winter’s rules are as follows:
1. Eat wings every day, from December 1 to March 19.
2. Bone-in, or traditional Hmong/ Thai/Japanese preparation only.
3. No repeats.
4. Eat the namesake sauce or rub, unless it’s so hot it’s trying to kill him.
5. Homemade wings must be cooked at least once each month.
6. It must be documented.
Beyond the sheer scope of this endeavor, Rule Number Six is where things get interesting. “Document” here means “photograph.” Yet our Colonel Sandor Clegane arrives with a show-stopping bag of tricks at first easily mistaken for a lunchbox.
(1) digital scale (set to measure in grams)
(2) plastic takeout container bottoms
(1) matching lid
(1) broken ruler
(1) Ziplock bag containing:
‑ (1) Tyrion Pop! Figure
‑ (1) handheld battery-operated light
- (7?) backup wet naps
(1) notebook, with pens for analog record-keeping, lest his iPhone fail
(1) sheet of graph paper in a plastic sleeve (markings down to the millimeter)
Keeping an empiricist’s sensibility at hand—obey the rules, adhere to a structure, and keep an open mind as you see what comes out in the wash—we dove into our wings as they arrived.
First, Hovland photographs his wings, as plated, at several angles, including an image with Tyrion lurking in the background.
“Why Tyrion and not the Hound?”
“Well, the Hound Pop! is $200 on eBay, and I thought $12 for Tyrion was a much better deal.”
Even this meticulous exploration of frivolities appears to have its limits—$200 on eBay is too much for Wings of Winter. (Not that he didn’t think about it: “The Hound would’ve made more sense with [his infamous line] ‘I’m going to have to eat every fucking chicken in this room,’” he continues, “But Tyrion’s the advisor. And I like my libations, he likes his libations....”)
Next comes recording the number of wings in an order, noting “part parity” in terms of drums versus flats: “I keep track of what the part ratio is because... some people like drums, some people like flats, some people like both.”
Afterward, the wings are dumped into one of those takeout containers on the (tared) scale, to determine pre-tasting wing weight. “I take the initial weight, then I take the bone weight, and then I figure out the eaten weight and I enter it into the spreadsheet,” says Hovland, making what he’s doing seem as natural as the sun rising.
In other words, by subtracting one measurement from the other, we’re shown how much of what we want—edible meat—we actually get. Our mortal hands are not to be trusted, and any bullshit faux-heft in the guise of bone and cartilage shall be cleaved away... by data.
Broadly considered, Wings of Winter is a compendium of one man’s very specific curiosity, except he’s collating it for you. For us. Thanks to Wings of Winter, depending on what we—not Hovland—value in a wing, we can find out who will best feed us, who’s ripping us off, or, conversely, who’s patiently waited to give us their glory, if only we’d show up and ask nicely.
Finally, we eat the Bulldog’s award-winning wings. It will easily go down in history as the most considered consumption of chicken I’ll experience in my lifetime.
“First thing I look at when I’m eating a wing is this triangle of skin that’s on each part. You see that?” Hovland pokes at a little nubbin with his finger. “I see if that is crispy or crunchy. These are good ones. Crispy. Then, with the drum, you take a bite, check the moisture.” He’s pleased: “Good amount of moisture, so they haven’t been sitting at temp for a long time, so the moisture hasn’t migrated back into the meat, or into skin.”
We met on the 101st consecutive day of Hovland’s wing marathon. He’d had some practice by this point.
A horrifying thought erupts from my brain, and immediately thereafter, my mouth. “Oh my god. How many chickens do you think you, personally, have killed doing this?”
He pauses to consider. “Probably close to 250? Or at least maimed.”
“They’re just flightless birds now.”
“Well, they were flightless to begin with.”
With a quick scroll through the data he’s amassed these past months, he comes up with a definitive figure: “The numbers so far are: 859.5 parts, so: 215.”
“Two hundred fifteen chickens?”
We both barely muster a shrug and go back to eating. These are, after all, very good wings.
The longer one dines with Hovland, the more one gets the sense that he experiences food and its creation through a prismatic lens of art, thermodynamics, history, and community. My mind wanders. “Maybe he has synesthesia, but of the mouth?” I think to myself, shoving a whole “flat” 90 percent of the way into my facehole.
When I come back to reality, we’re chatting about the history of Buffalo wings: the Southern presence of vinegar in most Buffalo sauces around here (“The ones in Buffalo, the vinegar wasn’t overpowering”), the role of exotic dancers in lemon-pepper’s dissemination in Atlanta’s wing culture (to which he’s considering paying homage by visiting Minneapolis’ King of Diamonds), and, to my shock, just how young this iconic food really is.
Buffalo wings are akin to America’s Stonehenge; no one thinks about a time before their existence. But the first ones were fried up in just 1964 by Teressa Bellissimo of the Anchor Bar in Buffalo, New York—before this point, they were mostly considered scraps. (Hovland hit the spot on New Years’ Eve.) Unconfirmable family legends suggest there was either a delivery error from the butcher, or that Bellissimo’s drunken son came home one night begging for a snack, and the iconic dish was born.
Long story short: We know who to thank for Hooters.
But Hovland doesn’t sound convinced: “You know how fried chicken—a Southern thing, poor black food—was then ‘discovered’ by whites and then became a popular item? Is it possible that it became popular except for the wing, that it was traditionally made wingless? And in Buffalo, the story is, they’re too pretty for the stockpot, so we decided to fry them up. So is it mutual discovery? Is that the actual origin, or is it that with our food ways, we didn’t keep track of where things came from if it wasn’t from white people? It’s something I’m curious about. I’ve tried to do some research but I haven’t found anything yet. After I start analyzing the [Wings of Winter] data, I might do more.”
There is zero doubt in my mind that Hovland will dig until he finds something on the honest origins of chicken wings. It’s merely another aspect of his thoroughness and intentionality.
Until then, data is what we have. Data fills spreadsheets. Spreadsheets become graphs. And people love graphs. They think they learn from them.
“Right now I just have the numbers,” Hovland says. “It’s just Instagram posts, pictures, some of the data points. I have all of the data points in the Google spreadsheet publicly available. The spreadsheet doesn’t support the way I want to graph [bone] lengths right now, so I have to learn a software language to do that. But I’m going to do it. So I can, like, graph the length range per location.”
“Wait. You’re going to learn a software language to accommodate Wings of Winter?”
“Yeah. It’s something I want to do,” he says, 100 percent nonchalant.
Somehow, Hovland’s spirit is always there, woven into Wings of Winter itself. Actually, that may be this open-sourced gift’s greatest accomplishment. It feels hugely human.
In spite of all its decimal points. And the mountains of dead birds.
After a seemingly endless winter (of wings), City Pages caught up with Hovland to see what lessons the project taught him, if any, and what the future may have in store. Here’s what he had to say:
CP: If you were to do it all over again, what would you do differently, if anything?
JDH: Besides more measurements, I think I’d try to get the people that made specific recommendations to accompany me to their recommended spot. I would have reveled in asking them why they enjoy their choice and trying to experience it through their lens.
CP: Did this exploration provoke any big “eureka” moments (either scientific or personal) along the way? Big life realizations, facilitated by chicken wings?
JDH: Nothing profoundly changing, but with as much humility as possible, it reminded me that I’m a really good cook. Before this I’d never cooked wings in any style, now I’ve followed recipes to make sticky wings and baked Buffalo wings, created my own dry rub, winged yakitori (pardon the pun), and took a wing style from one culture and applied the same principles to another with great success, in my humble opinion.
CP: You’d mentioned looking forward to not knowing the answer to “What are you having for dinner?” So what was the first non-wing day spent eating?
JDH: For lunch I had Skyway Wok: spicy beef noodles, cashew chicken, and an egg roll. That evening I was volunteering with Surly Gives a Damn in Golden Valley at the Food Group, and we met at Pub 42 afterwards for a beer. I’d had the wings there before, and they were good, but I opted for the smoked chicken quesadilla.
CP: What’s next, project-wise?
JDH: Over the summer I’m going to do Salads of Summer, but no rules, no measurements—just taking pictures, figuring out what their color palette is, enjoying it.
CP: You don’t happen to have synesthesia, do you?
JDH: I wish.