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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February 10, 2014 - 9:30am
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