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Secrets of the Chicken Nugget: A Surprising History

10 minute read

By 1955, the American chicken industry had hit the billion-bird mark and showed no signs of stopping. Despite newly low prices, instead of consumption going up what resulted was what surveyors called “chicken fatigue,” consumers believing that chicken was a “one size fits all” product that “gets tiresome if eaten more than once a week.”

This wasn’t good. Scientists and farmers and the government had spent so much time and money making chicken affordable and accessible to the American people over the past century only to find that after there were literally multiple chickens for every pot, no one really wanted them. “Consumers must be taught to think of broilers as a fine quality, delicious and nutritious meal,” the industry declared, and they launched an all-out attempt “to give chicken full status as a meat product.” The multibillion-dollar question was how.

The answer would come, piping hot and golden delicious, from the food science laboratories at Cornell University. In 1949, the school’s Department of Animal Sciences added to their faculty a young man by the name of Robert Baker. Teaching at Cornell had long been Baker’s dream, one he had had even before he started his bachelor’s at the university in 1939. Although he majored in fruit agriculture, having tended a hearty flock of Rhode Island Red chickens in his youth, he felt an immediate attraction to the poultry classes. When asked why he made the switch from fruits to birds, he replied, “I guess I fell in love with chickens. . . . I thought the future was brighter in chickens than in fruit.” And thanks to him, it would be.

Although he wanted to stay on at Cornell, he was advised to take some time away from the university, and upon graduation started working as a poultry extension agent in the South, helping struggling farmers to better grow their birds. It was in this capacity that he later returned to his beloved Cornell. As an assistant professor in poultry extension, Baker was charged with teaching farmers how to raise their flocks in the most efficient and profitable manner possible.

Baker quickly saw the limits of the growing side of the chicken equation; the farmers he was working with around Ithaca, N.Y. were keeping up with the latest in feed and housing technologies but were still falling behind. Having grown up on a struggling apple orchard in upstate New York during the Depression, Baker knew all too well the difficulties these farmers were facing. He had lived them. There had to be a way to help chicken growers not only sell more birds but also make even more money off of each one.

Foreseeing the revolutionary possibility of processed foods, which were already reaping big dividends for pork and beef, Baker decided that value-added poultry products would be his life’s work. He went on to receive his doctorate in food sciences from Purdue University in 1956 and by 1959 had set up a state-of-the-art poultry-products technology lab in the basement of a building at Cornell. On any given day, under the florescent lights of the windowless room, dozens of food science students would scurry between lab benches and food-prep tables with beakers and baking sheets in hand and food-safety-grade paper hats secured to their eager young heads. A delicious hybrid of serious scientists and intrepid line cooks, Dr. Baker’s team spent their semesters mincing and molding and measuring every facet of the chicken and the egg.

One of the early accomplishments to come out of that basement was the original Chicken Crispie, a bite-sized piece of chicken, coated in batter, and deep-fried. Nothing like it had ever been cooked up before because no one had yet figured out how to keep ground meats together without a skin, nor had they developed a batter that could withstand the dramatic temperature shifts of both freezing and frying. By mixing the chicken with salt and vinegar to draw out moisture and then throwing it in with pulverized grains and a binder of milk powder, the Crispie was able to stick together. The batter ended up as a coating of eggs and cereal that was flash frozen at –10°F. After many variations, Baker and his colleagues managed to find a way to keep the batter on the nugget even during frying.

This process, down to the packaging and costs of the Crispies, which could also be called “chicken sticks” if shaped correctly, Baker shared freely and widely in a Cornell Bulletin in 1963. These innovations would eventually resonate with all corners of the chicken world, most importantly at the drive-through window.

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The year 1977 was a bad one for fast food giant McDonald’s. Ever since owner Ray Kroc opened the doors of the hamburger joint’s first outpost in 1955, its golden arches beckoned suburbanites looking for a quick, tasty, and affordable bite. Within three years the rapidly multiplying chain had already sold its 100 millionth hamburger and would soon move comfortably into the billions. Its whole history up until 1977 had been one smooth saga of high sales and fat profits.

But as McDonald’s and other fast food companies were whipping up their speedy fare, the eating public also started hearing unsettling rumors about their favorite foods. Although cardiovascular disease had really started scaring people at the beginning of the twentieth century, by the 1950s it seemed to be reaching almost epidemic proportions in America. Twice as many people died of heart attacks and stroke at this time than they did of all cancers combined. Previously considered a disease that only affected the old, autopsies of soldiers killed in action during the Korean War were revealing that these otherwise vigorous young men were showing early signs of cardiovascular disease.

It’s now known that there are a great many risk factors that cause the buildup of plaque in the arteries that leads to heart disease— the big one for the golden age of suburbia being smoking—but all throughout the 1950s, the scientific community was increasingly muttering words like “cholesterol,” “saturated fat,” “heart disease,” and “death” in the same breath. Words are easy enough to shrug off while dining on all-beef patties, but in 1961 what were long written off as rumors were published as an authoritative report by the American Heart Association. This report linked heart disease to a type of fat known as cholesterol. The culprits identified as having the most cholesterol? Beef and pork.

The scientific literature linking not just cholesterol but also saturated fats to heart disease and stroke only continued to mount over the coming years, as did the sickness and death of increasingly younger men. Concerned for the arteries of their taxpayers, who were still smoking away and were now eating close to one hundred pounds of beef a year, in 1977 the US government stepped in and announced its dietary goals for the nation. For the first time, the bureaucracy no longer had to be concerned about its people having enough of certain foods but rather had to contend with the fact that the eating public now had too much of some. As a result, the government explicitly and loudly called for people to “decrease consumption of meat and increase consumption of poultry and fish.”

McDonald’s was understandably horrified. Although their menu had expanded over the years, the restaurant chain was still a hamburger joint at its core, and the US government had just told people to eat fewer hamburgers. Ever more people were listening to these nutritional messages, and sales for McDonald’s fell off dramatically. The company, now expanded to 6,000 stores across four continents, desperately sought a way to stay relevant in the rapidly shifting eating environment. Heeding the bureaucracy’s advice, people were flocking steadily over to the now cheap and abundant “white meat” chicken. So, in chickens too, McDonald’s saw a way.

The restaurant chain had tried and failed to add chicken items to their menu many times before, but in the late 1970s they now had the services of Chef Rene Arend, who had once cooked dinner for the Queen of England. Charged with saving the company, his first attempt at a chicken dish was a deep fried potpie. This failed in testing. Next came fried chicken, which, although delicious, could not compete in the already heavily saturated fried chicken market, which included the growing fast food powerhouse Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC).

Apparently giving up already on the difficult bird, Ray Kroc then asked Arend to shift his focus to making a bite-sized onion ring, an onion nugget. But the chairman of the McDonald’s board, Fred Turner, had his heart set on chicken. “Why not a chicken nugget?” he casually quipped to the chef as they passed each other one morning in the corporate hallway. The very same day Arend cut up chicken into tiny chunks, battered it, and threw it in the deep-fryer. This he called the Chicken McNugget, and it was love at first bite.

Instantly the company formed an elite and secretive McNugget SWAT team to produce their new poultry product. For the perfect bite-sized chicken chunks they called on processor Keystone Foods, which already provided McDonald’s its frozen hamburgers. For the perfect batter to coat these chunks, the chain turned to its friends at fish-stick maker Gorton’s, which had already helped the chain with their hit Filet-O-Fish. The sauces they left up to Arend. Although McDonald’s has no record of direct contact with Baker, the famous poultry scientist’s innovations undoubtedly influenced how the McNugget’s binding and batter were processed and perfected.

Just five months after this casual hallway conversation with Arend, a prototype nugget hit stores in Tennessee for a blind test, and the product broke all previous sales records. Knowing full well how much Americans were now embracing chicken, from the moment every franchisee heard about the success of the nuggets in testing, they wanted them. In less than half a year, McDonald’s tacked together a new multimillion-dollar factory dedicated just to these nuggets, and called in the big guns at Tyson Foods to help them ensure a steady supply. Tyson in turn developed a custom breed of chicken for the nuggets, “Mr. McDonald,” that had an even larger breast than the Chicken of Tomorrow. The instant they debuted in 1983 Chicken McNuggets were a global phenomenon. Within months, the bite-size chicken pieces made McDonald’s, a hamburger restaurant, the second biggest retailer of chicken on the planet, trailing behind only KFC.

Adapted with permission from Tastes Like Chicken: A History of America’s Favorite Bird by Emelyn Rude (Pegasus Books, 2016).

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