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Where Did the Chicken Nugget Come From?

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After World War II, the poultry world was a hotbed of innovation. Hybridization and new improved chicken-raising techniques helped farmers turn out meatier, tastier birds more efficiently and for less cost. On the processing and retail end, packaging chickens with heads, feet, and entrails already removed made the product more attractive and convenient for consumers. Chicken production was ramping up, but there was little increased demand to meet it. Chicken consumption, market researchers found, had stalled because consumers were suffering from “chicken fatigue.”

Even without their heads staring back at you in the butcher’s case, the vast majority of chickens at the time were still sold whole. Consumers complained that a whole bird was often too much for two or three people, and too small to feed a larger family. What’s more, people said they just didn’t have the time to roast a whole chicken or break it down and cook the parts other ways, especially with more and more women entering the postwar work force. Beef and pork, meanwhile, could be purchased as different cuts, in different amounts, and at different price points, offering variety and flexibility that left chicken trailing as America’s number three meat.

Enter The Chicken Man

A rescuer came in the form of Dr. Robert Baker, who worked at Cornell University as a professor of food science and a liaison to area chicken growers and marketers. Baker was tasked with finding ways to persuade consumers to eat more poultry. Baker was already a local celebrity because of his Cornell Chicken, grilled chicken sauced with a mix of seasonings whisked together with vinegar, oil, and egg. His recipe appeared in university publications and was doled out by the professor each summer at a stand at the New York State Fair.

Part of Baker’s grand chicken plan was developing a market for chickens in the 2.5 to 3-pound range, which would be more manageable in size for consumers and could be sent off to market sooner by farmers looking to increase their turnover. To do that, though, Baker had to come up with something people could do with these “broiler” size chickens, and the popularity of his barbecue recipe suggested that variety was the key.

Baker’s lab, stocked with grinders, blenders, stuffers and a de-boning machine that Baker helped develop, began processing, shaping and preparing chicken in ways that no one had done before. They made chicken sausage, chicken patties, chicken bologna, chicken hot dogs, and scores of other new products. Decades later, the New York Times would dub Baker “something of a chicken Edison.”

McDonald’s often claims credit for inventing the chicken nugget in the late '70s. But the original—which was more a stick shape—and the groundwork that led to the McDonald’s version was born in Baker’s lab a decade earlier. With help from his students, Baker cleared two hurdles standing in the way of a bite-size battered chicken morsel. They kept the processed meat together by drawing out moisture and adding binding agents, and kept the batter attached by freezing the nuggets, coating them and then freezing again. The lab worked up a package and label and tested out their frozen breaded chicken bites in a few local grocery stores. Through the next month and a half, they moved 200 boxes a week.

Baker’s research—everything from the recipe to the box design to a cost estimate for adding a nugget manufacturing line at a typical processing plant—was published in a free Cornell publication, and Baker never patented his chicken-transforming products. With the ideas out in the wind, different versions of chicken sticks, nuggets, patties, dogs and other processed chicken products sprang up all over the country. Over the next half century, chicken fatigue abated and consumption nearly tripled.

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Big Questions
What Causes Sinkholes?
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Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

This week, a sinkhole opened up on the White House lawn—likely the result of excess rainfall on the "legitimate swamp" surrounding the storied building, a geologist told The New York Times. While the event had some suggesting we call for Buffy's help, sinkholes are pretty common. In the past few days alone, cavernous maws in the earth have appeared in Maryland, North Carolina, Tennessee, and of course Florida, home to more sinkholes than any other state.

Sinkholes have gulped down suburban homes, cars, and entire fields in the past. How does the ground just open up like that?

Sinkholes are a simple matter of cause and effect. Urban sinkholes may be directly traced to underground water main breaks or collapsed sewer pipelines, into which city sidewalks crumple in the absence of any structural support. In more rural areas, such catastrophes might be attributed to abandoned mine shafts or salt caverns that can't take the weight anymore. These types of sinkholes are heavily influenced by human action, but most sinkholes are unpredictable, inevitable natural occurrences.

Florida is so prone to sinkholes because it has the misfortune of being built upon a foundation of limestone—solid rock, but the kind that is easily dissolved by acidic rain or groundwater. The karst process, in which the mildly acidic water wears away at fractures in the limestone, leaves empty space where there used to be stone, and even the residue is washed away. Any loose soil, grass, or—for example—luxury condominiums perched atop the hole in the ground aren't left with much support. Just as a house built on a weak foundation is more likely to collapse, the same is true of the ground itself. Gravity eventually takes its toll, aided by natural erosion, and so the hole begins to sink.

About 10 percent of the world's landscape is composed of karst regions. Despite being common, sinkholes' unforeseeable nature serves as proof that the ground beneath our feet may not be as solid as we think.

A version of this story originally ran in 2014.

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Big Questions
How Are Speed Limits Set?
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When driving down a road where speed limits are oppressively low, or high enough to let drivers get away with reckless behavior, it's easy to blame the government for getting it wrong. But you and your fellow drivers play a bigger a role in determining speed limits than you might think.

Before cities can come up with speed limit figures, they first need to look at how fast motorists drive down certain roads when there are no limitations. According to The Sacramento Bee, officials conduct speed surveys on two types of roads: arterial roads (typically four-lane highways) and collector streets (two-lane roads connecting residential areas to arterials). Once the data has been collected, they toss out the fastest 15 percent of drivers. The thinking is that this group is probably going faster than what's safe and isn't representative of the average driver. The sweet spot, according to the state, is the 85th percentile: Drivers in this group are thought to occupy the Goldilocks zone of safety and efficiency.

Officials use whatever speed falls in the 85th percentile to set limits for that street, but they do have some wiggle room. If the average speed is 33 mph, for example, they’d normally round up to 35 or down to 30 to reach the nearest 5-mph increment. Whether they decide to make the number higher or lower depends on other information they know about that area. If there’s a risky turn, they might decide to round down and keep drivers on the slow side.

A road’s crash rate also comes into play: If the number of collisions per million miles traveled for that stretch of road is higher than average, officials might lower the speed limit regardless of the 85th percentile rule. Roads that have a history of accidents might also warrant a special signal or sign to reinforce the new speed limit.

For other types of roads, setting speed limits is more of a cut-and-dry process. Streets that run through school zones, business districts, and residential areas are all assigned standard speed limits that are much lower than what drivers might hit if given free rein.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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