by Susan Ellis
Paul Gagliano loves hot wings and that was a good enough reason to launch the Southern Hot Wing Contest & Festival back in 2002.
The festival, a fund-raiser for the Ronald McDonald House, returns Saturday, April 21st, 11 a.m.-6 p.m., and it marks its 10th year with a move from South Main to Jefferson Davis Park and Riverside Drive.
The first Southern Hot Wings Contest was held in the parking lot of the Poplar Lounge. There were seven teams.
"I was nervous," remembers Gagliano about the 2002 event. "My friends didn't think it would work."
Adding to Gagliano's jitters was the light rain that morning. "Then," he says, "God parted the clouds ... "
That festival did well enough to do it again and again. In 2008, the move was made to South Main.
This year, there will be around 50 teams. Gagliano says that in the past 10 years, the application process has gotten more formal and the contestants have gotten more serious. ("Too serious," Gagliano says. "This is not Memphis in May.")
When it all began, judging criteria was simply "Do I like this one?" These days, judging is computerized and based on Kansas City rules that include blind rather than on-site judging. Entries are judged on appearance, flavor/spiciness, tenderness, presentation, and overall impression.
The move to Jefferson Davis Park was prompted by a vigorous complaint from a South Main resident. Gagliano admits he wasn't keen to move the event at first, but that the new site does have its advantages, such as river views.
There will be two stages for live entertainment (including Grace Askew, Devil Train, and the Riverbluff Clan), plus a kid's corner, more vendors, and space for picnicking.
Just like that first year, Gagliano still gets nervous as the festival approaches, and there have been hitches (like three years ago when he realized that the trophies were missing while onstage to announce the winners). But, Gagliano says that the nervousness is always replaced by the good vibes of supporting the Ronald McDonald House. "It never leaves my mind, to know you're helping" he says.
The festival has raised about $70,000 for the Memphis Ronald McDonald House, with some $45,000 of that raised in the last two years. Last year, a festival was started in Nashville, and there are plans to add more fund-raising festivals in other Southern cities.
As for Gagliano's tastes in hot wings, he says it all about the quality of the chicken. Organic is good, so is free range. When it comes to how those wings are prepared — hot, sweet, super-spicy, grilled, dry rub, covered in sauce — he's a bit more vague.
"Hard to say. I pretty much like all of them."