Chicken nuggets – the preferred meal of toddlers everywhere, and also, delicious enough that their parents don’t mind snagging the leftovers.
Who is the brilliant mind behind these little nuggets of yum, though? When did they first come into existence and save little kids from having to eat actual food day in and day out?
Keep reading to find out!
Most people think McDonald’s must have come up with the famous idea, but in actuality, most believe they began with Cornell University poultry and food science professor Robert C. Baker instead.
In the 1960s, Baker was looking for ways to make chicken exciting again. Americans were a bit weary of chicken dinners, since it was one of the only meats and by-products not rationed during the war, but he believed that didn’t have to be the case.
One issue was that chickens were typically sold as whole birds, and cutting them up took time and a bit of expertise. Baker believed that if he could simplify the process of cooking chicken, more families would be willing to see it in a new light.
First, he came up with a “chicken stick,” which was ground up chicken breaded in egg batter and then frozen. This was exciting because he did the work of removing the skin and whipping up the batter, and it still fried up after being frozen.
The chicken sticks were an instant hit at grocery stores, selling up to 200 boxes per week, but Baker thought he would do better.
He didn’t patent the chicken sticks, but shared them with poultry companies and food scientists all over the States, says anthropologists Steve Striffler.
“Robert C. Baker was both a product of changes going on in the poultry world and a driver of those changes.
Industry leaders quickly realized that real profit would not so much come from producing more chicken, but by doing more to chicken. Hence, further processing.”
This was also around the time that red meat began to get a bad rap, and chicken was promoted as a healthy alternative.
There is where McDonald’s enters the chat, with founder Ray Kroc looking for a chicken product that would capitalize on the push for Americans to eat more of it. He also wanted convenience – “a boneless piece of chicken, sold almost like French fries.”
Meat supplier Keystone Foods was consulted as far as a way to automate the chicken-chopping process (yum) and Gorton’s – famous for fish sticks – was asked for help coming up with a batter.
Then, in 1981, the Chicken McNugget made its debut, of course becoming one of the most successful product launches in fast food history. Today, it still accounts for around 10% of McDonald’s total food sales.
As for Baker, he founded Cornell’s Institute for Food Science and Marketing in 1970, serving as its director while inventing a chicken deboning machine.
He’s known as the “George Washington Carver of Chicken,” but receives no cash for his role in inspiring the creation of the McNugget.