"We just winged it," deadpans real estate broker and chicken wing enthusiast Paul Gagliano about the first Southern Hot Wing Festival he and some friends organized in the parking lot of the Poplar Lounge bar back in 2002.
That inaugural event attracted all of seven teams to compete for best wing, with maybe 60 people showing up to watch and have a good time.
"Just a handful of us judged then," he says. "We just took them back in the back and said this one's okay. This one tastes all right."
As the Southern Hot Wing Festival prepares to celebrate its 10th anniversary on Saturday, it's clear that this event devoted to the humble chicken wing has taken flight. More than 3,000 people attended last year's event despite cold weather. The attendance record is 7,000, set in 2008, the first year it was held in the South Main Arts District.
After four years in that location, the Southern Hot Wing Festival moves this year to a new home downtown at Jefferson Davis Park on Front Street and Riverside Drive below it. The move was necessitated by complaints from South Main residents. But Gagliano says the new location, a little used part of downtown that hosted the original Rajun Cajun Crawfish Festival 20 years ago, is a step up for his humble event.
"It think it's going to be much nicer," says Gagliano, comparing the grassy park and its view of the Mississippi River to the hard asphalt of South Main. "You can bring a blanket down there and listen to music and eat wings."
This year's event will feature 52 teams competing for a top prize of $1,000 with $500 for second, $250 for third, and $100 for best presentation. As opposed to that first year, judges certified by the Kansas City Barbecue Society will determine the winners.
The total of teams is down from last year's high of 57, a necessity of available space. That combined with the growing popularity of the event meant that for the first in its history the contest had to turn away team applicants.
Despite the event's name, Southern Hot Wing Festival contestants actually cook up a wide variety of styles of wings from sweet to savory to smoky and of course singing hot. Cooking methods vary as well.
"Some people grill them, some people fry them. Some people do both. Some people smoke them or broil them," says Gagliano.
One thing that has always distinguished The Southern Hot Wing Festival from most other cooking events is that festivalgoers are able to sample the food the contestants are cooking up. Teams are encouraged to put out a selection of their wings for the public to try.
"Teams bring about 40 extra pounds of wings for people to try," says Gagliano. "At other events if you don't know anybody you can't get anything. In this case you can."
The event also features a hot wing eating contest and live music on three stages throughout the day.
Proceeds from the festival go to the Ronald McDonald House, a beneficiary since its second year. Organizers have donated more than $70,000 to the home for St. Jude patients, including $45,000 over the past two years.
Though relatively hemmed in by its current digs, Gagliano says the festival still has room for growth. Last year a Nashville event was launched and there are plans to take the contest to Knoxville.
"One of these days we'll have to pull all of them together for a grand prize champion of Tennessee," he says.
10th Annual Southern Hot Wing Festival
11 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturday at Jefferson Davis Park on Front Street and Riverside Drive. Tickets: $7.50 in advance, $10 at the gate. Advance tickets available at all Mapco locations and at the Ronald McDonald House. For more information, visit southernhotwingfestival.com.
Jack Pirtle's Stage (Riverside Drive)
11 a.m.: Earl the Pearl
Noon: Richard James & The Special Riders
1 p.m.: Devil Train
2 p.m.: RT Scott Band
3 p.m.: Nancy Apple
5 p.m.: Reba Russell Band
Mapco Stage (Jefferson Davis Park, north side)
Noon: Christian Seay
1 p.m.: The Young Guns
2 p.m.: Brittany Russell & The Trunk Monkeys
3 p.m.: Phil Barns & Folks
4 p.m.: Alvin Oliveria
5 p.m.: The Riverbluff Clan & Chris Scott
6 p.m.: Grace Askew
Crawdad's Classic's Stage (Jefferson Davis Park, south side)
11 a.m.: Double Dave's
Noon: Tori Tollison
1 p.m.: Madison McKenzie
2 p.m.: Stew & Stacy
3 p.m.: Amy Jamison
4 p.m.: Delta Joe Sanders