How Boneless Wings Paved the Way for Fake Meat

What's your favorite kind of wing?

A plate of celery and boneless wings, which some people argue aren't "wings" or "boneless"
Your boneless wings might not actually be wings. Or meat.
Beata Zawrzel/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Super Bowl parties often feature absurd amounts of wings — so much so that last week’s Saturday Night Live used it as the centerpiece of one of the episode’s best sketches. It’s likely that at least some of you will be opting for boneless wings this weekend, though — and while they share the distinction with regular wings of being actual chicken meat, you’ve probably made your peace with the fact boneless wings are probably meticulously deboned chicken wings.

Still, “boneless wings” has persisted in lieu of a more accurate phrase. That doesn’t mean that some people aren’t pushing back against the term; a recent Associated Press article discussed one Nebraska man who has spoken out against referring to boneless wings as “boneless wings.” (Though, to be fair, it’s not entirely clear if the guy in question is engaged in some Andy Kaufman-level meta-comedy.)

As the article goes on to explain, boneless wings aren’t the only kind of wings that have little to nothing to do with actual chicken wings. There have long been vegetarian alternatives, some made from soy protein and some made from cauliflower. In terms of the former, I can still remember the taste of the former served at the now-shuttered Brooklyn restaurant Foodswings, which fell into the category of “vegetarian alternatives to food that I still eat even though I also eat meat.”

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It speaks to the way that certain words describing food can eventually become a catch-all for versions of those same foods with radically different origins. Just as boneless wings aren’t technically wings, so too is oat milk not technically milk — and yet everyone knows what’s meant by the phrasing. (Well, maybe not everyone.) The same is true for countless types of fake meat — from sausage to chicken to ground not-actually-beef.

Then again, it’s also arguable that boneless wings weren’t even the first example of this phenomenon in the world of wings. Odds are good that if you order a plate of wings, you’re liable to get a plate full of wings and drumsticks. At some point, using “wings” became a catch-all term, where it’s arguably more about the seasoning and sauce than anything else.

It’s a lot to think about. And whether your wings this weekend are actual wings, boneless wings or something entirely different, here’s hoping they’re delicious.


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