Chicken nuggets are a quintessentially American food: easily mass-produced and a quick, convenient protein source that can be eaten on the go. A staple of fast food restaurants and grocery freezer aisles for decades, they weren’t always on America’s dinner plates and children’s menus. It would take war, laboratory experiments and changing U.S. dietary guidelines before chains like McDonald’s catapulted chicken nuggets to a household name.
WATCH: Full episodes of The Food That Built America online now. New episodes premiere Sundays at 9/8c on HISTORY.
World War II’s Chicken Problem
During World War II, chicken became many Americans’ primary source of protein after the U.S. military commandeered red meat for soldiers, creating a beef shortage at home. The massive chicken demand incentivized businesses to produce the birds more cheaply, says anthropologist Steve Striffler, author of Chicken: The Dangerous Transformation of America’s Favorite Food: “World War II encouraged the spread, modernization and industrialization of chicken on a much larger scale.”
Late in the war, the military came for chicken, too: “In the spring of 1945, the War Food Administration requisitioned almost 100 percent of the production in the Delmarva peninsula (spanning Delaware, Maryland and Virginia), a major poultry-producing area,” says Dr. Ashton Merck, history instructor at Duke University. “The army’s requisitions provided a crucial opening for southern and midwestern producers to gain inroads in lucrative Eastern markets.”
When the war ended, poultry demand dropped. Red meat was no longer scarce, and chicken had a portion problem: At the time, most were sold whole. The birds were too small to feed all those postwar growing families, but too large for one person. Preparing whole roasts was a time-consuming task for women increasingly entering the workforce. It would take a new invention to reinvigorate the American appetite for chicken.
Robert C. Baker Invents Chicken Nuggets
Though the origin of chicken nuggets, like so many food items, remains disputed, it’s commonly accepted that agricultural scientist Robert C. Baker invented chicken nuggets in a laboratory at Cornell University in 1963. They were among dozens of poultry products he developed during his career, including turkey ham and chicken hot dogs, helping to greatly expand the U.S. poultry industry.
“Robert C. Baker was both a product of changes going on in the poultry world and a driver of those changes,” says Striffler. “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.”
Baker’s innovation was to mold boneless bite-size morsels from ground, skinless chicken (often from the little-used parts of the bird), and encase them in a breading perfectly engineered to solve two key problems: It stayed put through both frying and freezing, critical for mass production and transportation. His “chicken sticks” earned him the nickname the “George Washington Carver of chicken.”
Baker did not patent chicken nuggets. Instead, he mailed the recipe to hundreds of American companies who would later profit from his invention. But it would take a new health trend for Americans to truly embrace the chicken nugget.
The Red [Meat] Scare
In 1977, Congress released “Dietary Goals for the United States,” urging Americans to eat less red meat in favor of lean protein like poultry. “Americans started to have a fear of fat and fatty products like beef, milk and butter,” says Smithsonian food historian Dr. Ashley Rose Young, citing a drop in beef consumption over concerns about higher cholesterol, heart disease and a shorter lifespan. Chicken, she says, was marketed as a healthier alternative to beef.
Recommended for you
Ironically, the government’s dietary guidance arrived just as poultry was becoming increasingly mass-produced and processed. “Had Americans simply eaten chicken in its unprocessed form, they no doubt would have experienced some health benefit from switching away from red meat,” says Striffler. “Instead, they began to eat more and more processed chicken, which is often less healthy.”
America’s fast-food chains saw sales of their signature product—hamburgers—drop. The timing was right for a new star to be born.
When Were Chicken McNuggets Invented?
McDonald’s debuted Chicken McNuggets in select markets in 1981. They were inspired by owner Ray Kroc’s determination to develop a new menu item that appealed to the American desire for a convenient alternative to red meat. McDonald’s Chairman Fred Turner zeroed in on what that product should be: “a boneless piece of chicken,” sold “almost like French fries.”
McDonald’s hired chef Rene Arend, who had cooked for Queen Elizabeth II of England, to create it. Arend produced a fried chicken breast in sauce that was well received in the main corporate office, but could not be reproduced on the massive scale needed by McDonald’s franchises. A chicken pot pie concept was developed—and rejected.
McDonald’s then hired Keystone Foods, maker of frozen hamburgers, to automate the chicken-chopping process. They also brought on Gorton’s, best known for their frozen fish sticks, to create a batter for the fried chicken that could be reproduced en masse.
Peak chicken nugget mania hit in 1983, when McDonald’s introduced its now-iconic Chicken McNuggets nationwide. “The story of McNugget mayhem from the early 1980s is the stuff of legend,” says Adam Chandler, author of Drive-Thru Dreams. “Local news broadcasts showed long lines and stores running out of chicken.”
In 2018, McDonald’s reintroduced its limited edition Szechuan sauce. When the sauce sold out, customers started rioting. “This demand speaks to the durability of nuggets as a force in pop culture,” says Chandler.
READ MORE: How Drive-Thru Dining Changed Fast Food
Chicken Nuggets Change Farming Forever
In 1965, the average American ate 36.6 pounds of chicken a year. By 2020, consumption had nearly tripled to 97.5 pounds a year. “The increased demand for chicken in fast food not only drove the increase in chicken consumption, but led to the never-ending effort to further industrialize poultry production,” says Striffler. “Poultry farmers who turned baby chicks into full grown chickens in about six weeks were dominated by large agribusiness corporations.”
Slim profit margins led to questionable labor practices and animal welfare concerns, says Striffler. But the rising popularity of sustainable food and farming practices like chickens free from added hormones, free range chickens and pasture-raised chickens tell an evolving story of the American chicken nugget.