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The History of Chicken Nuggets

During World War II, the U.S. military rationed red meat, so chicken became the primary source of protein for many Americans at home. When the war ended, demand for poultry dropped, in part because chicken was time-consuming to prepare and difficult to portion. In 1963, agricultural scientist Robert C. Baker invented chicken nuggets in a lab at Cornell University. He molded boneless, bite-size morsels from ground, skinless chicken and encased them in breading. This solved several problems at once: it made chicken easy to prepare and portion while also facilitating mass production and transportation. Baker didn’t patent his chicken nuggets. Instead, he mailed the recipe to hundreds of American companies. Then in 1977, Congress released “Dietary Goals for the United States” and urged Americans to eat less red meat. Americans began to fear beef over concerns about cholesterol, heart disease, and a shorter lifespan; chicken was marketed as a healthier alternative, despite the fact that it was rapidly becoming more processed and mass-produced than ever before. As sales of hamburgers began to drop, McDonald’s owner Ray Kroc sought to develop a new menu item. Chairman Fred Turner reportedly came up with the idea of serving boneless chicken “almost like French fries” and the chain hired famed chef Rene Arend as well as Keystone Foods and Gorton’s to help bring the idea to fruition. McDonald’s introduced its Chicken McNuggets nationwide in 1983 and the public was wildly responsive — many stores saw long lines and actually ran out of stock! Frozen chicken nuggets also gained popularity at the grocery store over time. In 1965, the average American ate around 36 pounds of chicken each year. In 2020, that number nearly tripled to 97.5 pounds per year. The increase in demand and small profit margins led to questionable labor practices and animal welfare concerns in the poultry industry, but there is hope that things are turning around with the rising popularity of more sustainable and humane practices. Today, chicken nuggets have become one of the most popular and iconic American foods and are routinely served at restaurants and in homes all over the country.

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