Historical Hot Takes and Dipping Debates: Exploring Takeout’s Sweetheart, The Chicken Nugget
We owe the concept of the chicken nugget to the post World War II era, a time when chickens were typically purchased and cooked whole. The chicken industry was in crisis, since this cooking method was not well suited to the busy working lifestyles of women who had entered the new job markets of the post-war era. A bolstered chicken market during the war and a lack of demand for chicken post-war led to plummeting chicken prices.
Enter the father of the chicken nugget: renowned Cornell University food scientist Robert C. Baker developed what were then coined “Chicken Sticks” in the 1960s. Ground chicken was mixed with vinegar and salt in order to dry it along with powdered milk and grains to hold it together, and was then covered with batter that wouldn’t shrink when frozen or expand when fried. Thus the original chicken nugget was born.
Baker never patented his invention, so he never reaped any of the rewards when the chicken nugget ultimately became fast food’s sweetheart. It wasn’t until 1984 that McNuggets first appeared on McDonald’s menus around the world. Though they were not the original inventor of the nugget, the fast food giant certainly had a hand in popularizing these beloved handheld poultry bites. Oddly enough, the first McNuggets all started with an onion…
René Arend, former Executive Chef at McDonald’s was recipe testing an onion nugget. It must have been a rather uninspiring endeavor, because McDonald’s legend has it that a passing suggestion from Chairman Fred Turner convinced Arend to ditch onions in favour of chicken. The course for the first ever McNugget was set, and the rest was history.
During the early days of their release, McNuggets even had their own mascots. The McNugget Buddies were featured in a series of action packed commercials featuring Ronald McDonald. Mr-Potato-Head-Esque McNugget Buddy figurines adorned Happy Meal boxes, and their weekly releases excited small McDonald’s patrons everywhere.
Perhaps the most hotly debated topic of today when it comes to chicken nuggets is: What Dipping Sauce? The tender, bite-sized snacks may just be the tastiest vehicle for sauce there is. The original four sauces that accompanied the McNuggets launch were Honey, Sweet and Sour, Hot Mustard and Barbecue. To this day, there are still die-hard honey purists aplenty. I myself will always opt for Hot Mustard. Many opt for simply the default Sweet and Sour, while others mix it up by requesting the McChicken sauce for their dipping pleasures. Spicy Buffalo is a relatively new addition to the sauce repertoire that is sure to please heat lovers.
McDonald’s isn’t the only game in town when it comes to chicken nuggets. Popcorn chicken is another much beloved bite-sized chicken snack that is a staple on the KFC menu. Unlike the processed nugget style of Robert C. Baker, KFC’s Popcorn Chicken is notoriously not nugget-sized. Real pieces of breast meat give you more batter per bite. Their perfect snacking size comes from the fact that they are 100 percent chicken breast meat, off-the-bone, which may appeal to those seeking a less processed option.
Burger King’s menu also has their own unique form of chicken-nugget type fare with their Chicken Fries. Their unique fry shape and their designed-for-dipping to-go box make this menu item an elite option when it comes to roadtrip snacks. The box fits in a cup holder, and the lid folds back while a perforated rectangle breaks away to create its own perfectly sized dipping sauce pocket.
Both Burger King and McDonald’s have also gotten creative with the flavouring of chicken nuggets with their own spicy versions. BK coats their nuggets in a spicy glaze of Cayenne peppers, Birds Eye chili and Black pepper, and McDonald’s breads their spicy nuggets in cayenne-flecked tempura. For Canadians only, inspired by our country’s love of Ketchup chips, BK has also introduced limited edition Ketchup Nuggets, coated in a ketchup flavoured breading.
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Nugget lovers everywhere have long raved about Chick-Fil-A’s version. You can get them breaded or grilled, the latter an option unique to Chick-Fil-A. Their sauce variety is vast with unique options like Garden Herb Ranch, Polynesian, and their house Chick-Fil-A sauce, along with classics like BBQ, Sweet and Sour, and Honey Mustard.
Honourable mention goes to Costco, whose private label Kirkland brand recently launched a frozen nugget that fans are hailing as a Chick-Fil-A dupe!
These snack-sized chicken morsels will certainly continue bringing folks together over party platters and dipping debates for generations to come.