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Why Chicken Wings Dominate Super Bowl Snack Time

Take a look at this remarkable graph — is it the stock market? Home sales?

Nope. Click on the blue box in the lower right-hand corner and you'll see that the blue line tracks the number of chicken wings that Americans bought at grocery stores over the last year. See that mighty surge of wing-buying in early February? Apparently, you just cannot have a Super Bowl party without chicken wings — millions and millions of chicken wings.

"That bump has gotten bigger and bigger" over the years, says Bill Roenigk, chief economist at the National Chicken Council, which represents the chicken industry. And the industry is capitalizing on the craze with both higher prices and enough recipes for baked, fried, or caramelized versions to distract any kitchen referee.

Roenigk says the magical pairing of humongous athletes and itty-bitty chicken parts got its start with the rise of sports bars a few decades ago. Sports-watching demands cheap munchies, and wings were both convenient and cheap. "Ribs and pizza were the competition," says Roenigk. But ribs cost more money, and pizza — well, pizza tends to lose its charm if it sits on a table for too long.

Three years ago, right before Super Bowl XLV, the National Chicken Council realized that it had a social phenomenon on its hands and decided to promote it. The Council's mock-serious Wing Report is now an annual pre-game tradition.

According to the 2013 Wing Report, Americans will eat 1.23 billion wings next weekend. If laid out end to end, they would "stretch from Candlestick Park in San Francisco to M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore 27 times."

In an odd twist, the once-cheap wing has become the most desirable and expensive part of the chicken. Per pound, chicken wings are now pricier than bone-in chicken breasts, perhaps inspiring this epic wing heist.

"People say, 'You ought to produce more wings,'" says Roemigk. This year's Wing Report lays out the crucial obstacle: "A chicken has two wings, and chicken companies are not able to produce wings without the rest of the chicken."

There's such a demand for wings, Roemigk says, that some restaurants actually are selling strips of chicken breast meat as "boneless wings."

A chicken's wing actually consists of three parts. Americans eat the first two segments — known as the "drumette" and the "flat" — but the wing tips, known as "flippers," are generally exported to Asia, especially China, where they are consumed with gusto. (Chicken feet go across the Pacific, too, in case you were wondering.)

But the almighty chicken wing may not hold the Lombardi trophy for long. Others are trying to claim a piece of this lucrative Super Bowl snack market for their own. Taco Bell, for instance, released an ad calling tacos a "game day tradition." The ad also laid a helmet-to-helmet hit on the idea of bringing veggies to a party ("Secretly, people kind of hate you for it") — which aroused the ire of healthy-eating activists and convinced Taco Bell to pull the ad.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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