Chicken Nuggets: Delicacies, Hen Fever, Robert Baker, and Engagement Chicken

Recently I was telling my good friend and gourmet cook, John, of interesting tidbits I’d heard on the podcast, Innovation: It Tastes Like Chicken. I was intrigued to learn that less than a century ago, chicken was as expensive as lobster, and to hear food historian Emelyn Rude chronicle the chicken’s journey to becoming a staple of the American diet.

Growing up in North Syracuse, John remembered regular visits to Aunt Alice’s for dinner. One of Aunt Allie’s specialties was City Chicken, a mock chicken dish—veal on a skewer she made in the pressure cooker. Everyone loved it. It took John a long time to realize how anomalous it was that veal could be far less expensive than chicken.

According to The Food Timeline, Depression and World War II-era cooks created mock foods to stretch the budget and satisfy family tastes. “Veal birds” was a popular dish: Browned and simmered calves’ meat on a stick, it nicely mimicked the taste of a chicken drumstick.

In her 1995 book, Fashionable Food: Seven Decades of Food Fads, Sylvia Lovegren writes: “Veal had never been an American meat staple…And though the amount of veal we did eat fell off after the war, it was used occasionally (except by immigrants who liked it) as an inexpensive substitute for the desirable high-priced chicken or turkey, which were not yet being raised in huge numbers by poultry factories.”

Today the vast majority of Americans only know of chicken as a widely available, well-priced alternative to red meat. The fact that chicken was once considered a delicacy would be a surprise to most people.

Chicken salad as status symbol

As Emelyn Rude tells it in How Chicken Conquered the American Dinner Plate, U.S. industrialization and urban growth in the late 19th century resulted in a drop in the supply of chicken and a dramatic rise in price. She quotes from an 1885 Good Housekeeping article about chicken that is “sought by the rich because [it is] so costly as to be an uncommon dish.” At the time, Rude tells us, chicken cost four times what sirloin steak did. So in a 360° turn from today, most folks used what was most affordable, veal. If you traveled in rarefied circles and were invited to balls and galas, you could expect to find chicken salad as the featured menu item.

Hen fever

One of the first and most storied asset bubbles in world economic history—tulip mania—occurred in The Netherlands in the 17th century. People’s fascination with the advent of tulips sent bulb prices soaring far beyond their intrinsic value; ultimately the malfunctioning market suddenly collapsed. In the U.S. we know the Roaring Twenties stock-market bubble that burst in 1929 and, more recently, the dot-com bubble circa 1997-2001 (resulting in the failure of many internet-based companies) and the housing bubble that peaked in early 2006.

Lesser-known is the chicken bubble—or the “hen fever” that spanned ten years from about 1845 to 1855. For a century or two in the U.S. chickens were valued most for their egg-producing capacity. Inspired from across the pond by those fervent, exotic-fowl aviarists, the Victorians, Americans set out to breed exceptional, expensive chickens.

November 15, 1849, the date of the Boston Poultry Show—the first in the U.S.—is considered “a red-letter day in the history of poultry breeding.” The event drew over 10,000 people and sparked a wave of breeding ambition among Americans of every socio-economic stripe—here was hatched the concept of the Heritage Breed chicken. Poultry breeders were focused on variety, feather palette and contour, egg-laying skill, and brawn for prevailing in the cockfight.

During the hen fever, folks were willing to pay princely sums of as much as $1 for a single egg and $120 for a pair of birds. The widespread use of chicken as meat for the masses occurred years later after World War II.

Credit where credit is due

Pop quiz: Who invented the chicken nugget? If you said McDonald’s, you’d be in good company. McDonald’s sold its first McNuggets in 1980. At the time the company was looking for a way to maintain the loyalty of health-conscious customers who wanted to lower dietary fat, which meant less red meat.

It is said that the real innovator (or demon, depending on your point of view) behind the chicken nugget was Cornell University professor and poultry food scientist Robert C. Baker, who introduced a frozen, breaded “chicken stick” in 1963.

In their poultry-products technology lab at Cornell, Baker and his graduate students unwittingly launched a new industry segment—“further processed” poultry. There they invented first takes on chicken hot dogs, cold cuts, meatballs, and scores of other edibles made from eggs and chicken. As academics they were responding to economic and social imperatives of their time, and their work contributed to a major shift in the market for chicken.

Engagement Chicken

In my early days of cooking to impress a man, my dish of choice was Moroccan couscous, which can be made with chicken, lamb, or sans meat. Fresh off my first trip to France, I thought it perfect for showing off my newly-minted status as a sophisticate. Only recently did I learn of what many regard as a gastronomic slam dunk for the marriage-minded: Engagement Chicken. Concocted by a Glamour magazine fashion editor in the early ‘80s, this lemon-and-herb-spiced roast chicken is purported to have prompted about 70 men to propose marriage after being served the dish. My couscous had no such result!