Hilton Head Island town manager Steve Riley has judged the island's Wingfest for the past 10 years or so. He said he has tasted an awful lot of good wings over that time -- and probably a few just plain awful ones, as well.
Although he can't recall one particular flavor as his favorite, there are a few that have stuck with him over the years (in more ways than one). Riley has tasted a variety of barbecue sauces and hot sauces. He's tried all kinds of weird-looking wings. He's even eaten green wings given the event's close proximity to St. Patrick's Day.
"Sometimes we're not even sure what it all is," Riley said. "We're all looking around the table, going, 'Who's going to be the first one to try this one?'"
But the most memorable wings have to be the ones that were either so spicy or so hot they burned right through their Styrofoam plate.
In spite of all that, Riley is heading back to Shelter Cove Community Park on Saturday for the 16th l Wingfest. He and the other judges will put their taste buds to the test once again to vote for first-, second- and third-place winners in the wing contest. Eighteen restaurants, a group of Hilton Head firefighters and members of Central Church will vie for the esteemed title of "Best Wing." Wingfest guests also will get a chance to vote for their favorites with the "People's Choice" award. Votes must be turned in before 4 p.m. to count.
An estimated 4,000 to 5,000 people will attend this weekend's festival, according to Hilton Head Island Recreation Association special events director Joe Cain. He said festivalgoers will consume about 6,000 pounds of chicken wings at the event.
Cain, who has organized Wingfest for nine years, offers sage advice to the competitors: If they want to win the competition, they should try to develop good flavor instead of going for the hot stuff. He said one year the firefighters entered their "Wings of Mass Destruction."
"I don't think the judges were able to taste the last three restaurants' wings," Cain said. "Their lips and tongues were actually on fire. The firemen haven't done that since."
He said the most unusual wing he's ever tasted was three years ago when Street Meet entered its "Chicken and Waffles" wings, which are floured, soaked in buttermilk, fried and tossed in a homemade pancake syrup, then served with Eggo waffles.
"It's like the Southern dish when you get fried chicken in waffles but with the wings with little baby waffles," Street Meet owner Carey Basciano said.
Basciano plans to enter the same flavor into this year's competition, along with two others. Last year's "People's Choice" winner, "The Soul Kitchen," is tossed with french fries in a homemade chipotle ranch dressing. And the "Cajun Chicken Alfredo" wing is tossed with onion rings in a homemade Alfredo sauce with Cajun seasoning.
"I try to do novelty stuff rather than do it spicy," Basciano said.
Basciano said he thinks Wingfest is one of the best events on Hilton Head, partly because it has representation from different types of restaurants.
"Different levels of dining can participate," Basciano said. "It's not just barbecue or just chili. It kind of gives it larger mass appeal."
Although the food is definitely the highlight of this festival, it isn't the only lure. Many come for the social aspect. Walk around the park and you're likely to run into friends you haven't seen in years. Enjoy live entertainment by Deas Guyz, Good People, Chris and Christian and The Marshal Dillon Band. Bring the little ones to play at the kid's zone. Try out the rock climbing wall, go for a bungee jump or sit back and watch March Madness basketball on the big-screen TV.
Whether you go for the entertainment, the food or just to socialize, it's all for a good cause. Money raised will benefit the recreation association's scholarship fund and potentially help some young folks' dreams take flight -- thanks to a few thousand chicken wings.
If you go
The Hilton Head Island Recreation Association and Hargray will present the 16th annual Wingfest from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday at Shelter Cove Community Park on Hilton Head Island. Admission is $5; children ages 12 and younger get in free. Tickets to sample wings must be purchased. All proceeds go to the recreation association's scholarship fund. Details: 843-681-7273, www.islandreccenter.org