There are things in your life that are so ubiquitous, you never stop to consider them. Traffic signals. Magnets. For me, chicken nuggets. They seem to be everywhere: every fast-food chain, every kids’ menu, every supermarket freezer aisle. I don’t particularly care for them, but I never stopped to wonder where they came from. I assumed, as with so much else in our food culture, McDonald’s was responsible, and other food producers had followed the McNugget’s market-devouring lead.
Well, yes, and no. As part of my reporting on food policy, I’ve been looking into the history of poultry production — and reading up on what drove its vast post-war expansion, I stumbled across the lost history of the nugget. It appears to have been invented — or at least, originally proposed — by a Cornell professor, 17 years before McDonald’s had essentially the same idea.
In Slate today, I tell the story of that professor, Robert C. Baker, and how much we have to thank (or blame) him for:
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.
In 1963, Baker and his colleague Joseph Marshall proposed a first-ever “chicken stick,” made of ground, blended and frozen chicken. Keeping the stick together without a sausage-like skin, and keeping the breading on through freezing and frying, were major advances, and they appear to have inspired many subsequent creations made of what is now called “comminuted” (minced, ground, mashed and variously stuck-together) chicken.
Intellectually at least, the McDonald’s McNugget is Baker’s stick’s direct descendant. But, to be clear, not a rip-off — more an example of convergent evolution. Baker never patented his products (which Cornell may now regret), and if the stories told by McDonald’s own materials and various other authors are correct, awareness of Baker’s creation became part of the broad institutional history of chicken production which McD’s and its suppliers, and other food processors, later drew on.
The connection of the nugget to Baker himself was mostly lost. In New York State, where I went to look at his archives, he is best known for developing the “Cornell chicken” barbecue sauce served at practically every firehouse fundraising cookout, and also at the New York State Fair’s Chicken Coop, run by Bakers’ daughters.
A few people remember his legacy, however. The comedy musical team Paul and Storm wrote a catchy song about Baker when he died in 2006:
And for a spot-on analysis of the true economics of the nugget, you can’t do better than The Wire: