The story of the chicken nugget begins shortly after World War II, when the world of poultry was buzzing with new concepts and ideas. There were new ways to raise chickens and new chicken species hybrids that allowed farmers to raise juicier, tastier, bulkier chickens for less money, and in less time. When it came to the consumer, people were more than thrilled when chickens began to come pre-cut, without the feet and guts that used to require removal. More chickens than ever were being raised and pumped into grocery stores and refrigerators. Until, suddenly, chicken wasn’t such a hot item anymore; it seems that consumers were getting tired of chicken, a condition dubbed “chicken fatigue”.
One big problem with buying chicken, for the consumers, was that chickens were available only as a whole bird, and you couldn’t buy parts separately, like you can today. One whole chicken was just too much for a small family, while not sufficient for a large family. Plus, preparing a whole chicken took too much time, and cutting the chicken up yourself was time-consuming and unsavory, as well.
The chicken industry needed a savior, and he came in the form of Cornell University’s Dr. Robert Baker. A seasoned food science expert and friend of the chicken farmer, he was asked to come up with ways to make chicken more appealing without raising costs for either the farmers or the markets.
One of Baker’s solutions was to find a way to sell smaller chickens, only 3 pounds or so; this would make it more attractive to consumers looking to save money and time, as well as allowing farmers to send immature chickens to slaughter; they’d fetch less per chicken but be able to sell many more chickens at one time, and reduce the cost of raising chickens to maturity.
So Baker went to the lab and began producing all sorts of chicken products, from sausages to patties to bologna to hot dogs, that could be made from these smaller chickens. He would one day be called a “chicken Edison” because of the huge variety of products he concocted.
Long after Baker’s time, in the late 1970’s, McDonalds would lay claim to the chicken nugget with the release of their Chicken McNuggets. But they’re a decade late on the draw; Baker had already conceived of a proto-nugget in his laboratory. The original chicken nugget looked more like a fish stick, but it was a certifiable nugget nonetheless, from the breading to the binding agents to the process, which included freezing, thawing, and then re-freezing the nugget.
After a short trial period in some grocery stores, Baker’s chicken nugget was a hit, selling 200 boxes every week. But Baker never patented any part of the recipe, not even the box the nuggets came in, and companies leapt onto the processed chicken bandwagon, eager to feed consumers who were no longer suffering from “chicken fatigue”.