Tate & Lyle
Carst and Walker
chicken nuggets

The father of the chicken nugget

How ubiquitious the chicken nugget: small, salty, and spongy; derided by Michael Pollan and reviled by Jamie Oliver. Children adore them, parents are conflicted about them, public-health campaigners despise them for sparking an epidemic of obesity. But you can’t get away from them.

There are nuggets at almost every fast-food chain, on almost every restaurant kids’ menu, and in almost every supermarket freezer: breaded or naked; fried or grill-marked; gluten-free or organic; shaped like alphabets, dinosaurs, or stars. We know almost everything about chicken nuggets, except who is responsible for them.

Credit, or blame, usually goes to McDonald’s, which sold its first McNuggets in 1980. But the probable inventor of the nugget is a Cornell University professor named Robert C. Baker who died in 2006, and who proposed a prototype—a frozen, breaded “chicken stick”—in 1963.

Baker was a professor of poultry science, and a chicken savant. He and his graduate students dreamed up the first versions of products we now take for granted: chicken hot dogs, chicken cold cuts, chicken meatballs, and more than 50 other edible items made from eggs and chicken but made to look like something else.

The foods they invented, which they detailed in widely distributed bulletins for anyone to copy and refine, launched what the industry now calls “further processed” poultry. Convenient and appealing, further-processed products transformed the market for chicken, pushing consumption from 34 pounds per person in 1965 to 84 pounds last year. But pressure from that new demand transformed the industry as well, turning it from a loose confederation of many family farms into a small set of massive conglomerates with questionable labor and environmental records.

It’s a mixed legacy for a man who wanted only to increase the market power of upstate New York’s poultry farmers — men whose families have since left the business, because the changes wrought by nuggets made it unprofitable.

“I think you have to understand him as a person of his time,” Baker’s oldest son Dale, now 66, says. “He grew up in the Depression, not having enough food to eat. When he’d buy a dinner, he would want to get the most calories for the price. He wanted to be sure the farmers would get the best prices for their birds.”…..

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