Where Did the Chicken Nugget Come From?


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.

AFP, Getty Images
Big Questions
What Happened to the Physical Copy of the 'I Have a Dream' Speech?
AFP, Getty Images
AFP, Getty Images

On August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and gave a speech for the ages, delivering the oratorical masterpiece "I Have a Dream" to nearly 250,000 people.

When he was done, King stepped away from the podium, folded his speech, and found himself standing in front of George Raveling, a former Villanova basketball player who, along with his friend Warren Wilson, had been asked to provide extra security around Dr. King while he was speaking. "We were both tall, gangly guys," Raveling told TIME in 2003. "We didn't know what we were doing but we certainly made for a good appearance."

Moved by the speech, Raveling saw the folded papers in King’s hands and asked if he could have them. King gave the young volunteer the speech without hesitation, and that was that.

“At no time do I remember thinking, ‘Wow, we got this historic document,’” Raveling told Sports Illustrated in 2015. Not realizing he was holding what would become an important piece of history in his hands, Raveling went home and stuck the three sheets of paper into a Harry Truman biography for safekeeping. They sat there for nearly two decades while Raveling developed an impressive career coaching NCAA men’s basketball.

In 1984, he had recently taken over as the head coach at the University of Iowa and was chatting with Bob Denney of the Cedar Rapids Gazette when Denney brought up the March on Washington. That's when Raveling dropped the bomb: “You know, I’ve got a copy of that speech," he said, and dug it out of the Truman book. After writing an article about Raveling's connection, the reporter had the speech professionally framed for the coach.

Though he displayed the framed speech in his house for a few years, Raveling began to realize the value of the piece and moved it to a bank vault in Los Angeles. Though he has received offers for King’s speech—one collector wanted to purchase the speech for $3 million in 2014—Raveling has turned them all down. He has been in talks with various museums and universities and hopes to put the speech on display in the future, but for now, he cherishes having it in his possession.

“That to me is something I’ll always be able to look back and say I was there,” Raveling said in the original Cedar Rapids Gazette article. “And not only out there in that arena of people, but to be within touching distance of him. That’s like when you’re 80 or 90 years old you can look back and say ‘I was in touching distance of Abraham Lincoln when he made the Gettysburg Address.’"

“I have no idea why I even asked him for the speech,” Raveling, now CEO of Coaching for Success, has said. “But I’m sure glad that I did.”

Big Questions
How Are Rooms Cleaned at an Ice Hotel?

Cleaning rooms at Sweden’s famous ICEHOTEL is arguably less involved than your typical hotel. The bed, for example, does not have traditional sheets. Instead, it’s essentially an air mattress topped with reindeer fur, which sits on top of a custom-made wooden palette that has a minimum of 60 centimeters of airspace below. On top of those reindeer hides is a sleeping bag, and inside that sleeping bag is a sleep sack. And while it’s always 20ºF inside the room, once guests wrap themselves up for the night, it can get cozy.

And, if they’re wearing too many layers, it can get quite sweaty, too.

“The sleep sack gets washed every day, I promise you that. I know it for a fact because I love to walk behind the laundry, because it’s so warm back there," James McClean, one of the few Americans—if not the only—who have worked at Sweden's ICEHOTEL, tells Mental Floss. (He worked on the construction and maintenance crew for several years.)

There isn’t much else to clean in most guest rooms. The bathrooms and showers are elsewhere in the hotel, and most guests only spend their sleeping hours in the space. But there is the occasional accident—like other hotels, some bodily fluids end up where they shouldn’t be. People puke or get too lazy to walk to the communal restrooms. Unlike other hotels, these bodily fluids, well, they freeze.

“You can only imagine the types of bodily fluids that get, I guess, excreted … or expelled … or purged onto the walls,” McClean says. “At least once a week there’s a yellow stain or a spilled glass of wine or cranberry juice … and it’s not what you want to see splattered everywhere.” Housekeeping fixes these unsightly splotches with an ice pick and shovel, re-patching it with fresh snow from outside.

Every room has a 4-inch vent drilled into the icy wall, which helps prevent CO2 from escalating to harmful levels. Maintenance checks the holes daily to ensure these vents are not plugged with snow. Their tool of choice for clearing the pathway is, according to McClean, “basically a toilet brush on a stick.”

When maintenance isn’t busy unstuffing snow from that vent hole, they’re busy piping snow through it. Every couple days, the floor of each room receives a new coat of fluffy snow, which is piped through the vent and leveled with a garden rake.

“It’s the equivalent of vacuuming the carpet,” McClean says.

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