Which came first? The history of the chicken nugget

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Ah, the McNugget.

Is there any food so iconically American and so versatile? Whether you’re a small kid waiting for that four-pack of nuggets and sweet-and-sour sauce in your Happy Meal or an adult slamming back a 20-pack at midnight, you’ll be pressed to find a fast food with more cult-like devotees.

But where exactly did this McNugget come from? And is it actually true that the McNugget is the “OG” of chicken nuggets? In honor of the McNugget’s 40th anniversary, we dug deep into the bottom of the sauce packet (spicy buffalo, please!) to track down the history of the McNugget — and, subsequently, the history of the chicken nugget itself.

U.S. World War II ration card
U.S. National Archives and Records Administration

How did chicken join the American diet?

Before we hop into timelines, it’s worth pointing out why myriad people, companies and even universities became interested in making what became known as the chicken nugget. During World War II, chicken and other poultries became staples in many Americans’ lives as beef became rationed (and thus also rather expensive). The result of this increase in demand for poultry was also an increase in production, both by chicken farmers and companies. But before World War II, Tyson, established in 1935, was practically the only major seller of poultry in the U.S. Their sales boomed during the war, as competitors were much slower to join the chicken game. For instance, Hormel didn’t start selling chicken until 1988.

Tyson chickens ready to ship
American Made: Is Tyson Chicken Produced in the USA? / Tyson Brand YouTube

Chicken gets another boost in the ‘70s

When World War II ended and Americans could more easily purchase beef again, many chicken farmers found themselves facing a decrease in profit.  But by the 1970s, chicken farmers and fast food restaurants alike started losing profits as health concerns surrounding eating beef came to the public spotlight.

This is where McDonald’s entered the equation. Up until the ‘70s, McDonald’s enjoyed high profits selling burgers, fries and other fatty foods. But according to Emelyn Rude’s Tastes Like Chicken: A History of America’s Favorite Bird, the government started getting increasingly concerned about Americans’ diets and wanted to do something about it.

In the 1950s, the American Heart Association released one of its first reports warning of the effects of too much red meat on the cardiovascular system, cholesterol levels, weight and other health concerns. In the 1970s, after more research came out on how many Americans die because of cardiovascular issues, the American government intervened. Through a series of ads and other campaigns, the government sought to educate the public about the dangers of eating so much fast food and, in particular, so much beef.

McDonald's Onion Nuggets
McDonaldsCorp / Twitter

Why did McDonald’s make the McNugget?

Because of these health campaigns, McDonald’s and other beef-oriented fast food restaurants saw dramatic dips in sales.  So McDonald’s was forced into the chicken game because it needed a new, healthier alternative to burgers.

The company took dramatic steps in the ‘70s desperately trying to create a successful chicken product. Early attempts included hiring Rene Arend, a former cook for the Queen of England. Arend and McDonald’s tried a deep fried chicken pot pie and fried chicken, both of which failed. They even briefly offered an onion nugget and considered abandoning chicken all together.Finally, Chairman Fred Turner asked Arend to try a bite-sized chicken dish — a nugget, as it were. The nugget, or McNugget, was an instant success in test groups, so the McDonald’s team went to work to perfect it.

Robert C. Baker
Cornell University Faculty Biographical Files / Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections

Was this the first nugget?

Before McDonald’s labs went to work to make the best fast-food chicken product on the market, Robert C. Baker was hunkered down in a Cornell University lab trying to help farmers solve their post-World War II chicken woes. Stuck with birds that they couldn’t sell, Baker set out to first help farmers perfect the breeding and selling of birds, and a way to harness the growing processed foods movement to make these birds more sellable.

Baker soon created the chicken nugget and shared the news far and wide through the 1963 edition of the Cornell Bulletin. Baker would go on to create myriad other popular processed poultry products, including turkey ham and chicken hot dogs.

Baker never patented his chicken nugget recipe. In fact, he instead sent the recipe to a number of companies, as his goal was to help Americans develop a taste for chicken (as opposed to the still-popular and still not-so-great-for-your-cholesterol beef) while also helping the poultry farmers he worked closely with.

Original chicken McNugget packaging
Jason Liebig / Flickr

So when exactly did McDonald’s make the McNugget?

By 1977, McDonald’s was testing its newly perfected McNugget in various test kitchens throughout the country. They dumped millions of dollars into a new factory to mass-produce nuggets, and they even worked with Tyson to create a new breed of chicken that had a larger breast to help the fast food giant avoid any potential shortages.

The McNugget was made available at some McDonald’s restaurants across the country in 1981, and by 1983, it was available at all its U.S. restaurants. The McNugget was an instant money-maker, and it skyrocketed McDonald’s to being the second-largest seller of chicken on the entire planet, second only to KFC.

Tyson’s bonds with McDonald’s have grown since then. As recently as 2018, Tyson bought out one of McDonald’s original chicken sources, Keystone Foods, which had also helped supply the fast food giant with chickens. The move makes Tyson one of McDonald’s largest sources of chicken to date.

Vintage Perdue chicken ad
Vintage Ads: Perdue Chickens – Tender Chicken / smash9grab / YouTube

Who else makes nuggets?

McDonald’s patented its McNugget recipe in 1979, but that doesn’t mean other companies can’t sell their own nugget. For instance, Tyson, unsurprisingly, started selling chicken nuggets in 1983..

The nugget craze caught on quickly among other companies, including:

Chick-Fil-A chicken nuggets
Chick-Fil-A

Fast food nuggets

And, of course, other fast food chains also jumped on the nugget bandwagon:

  • Chick-fil-A: 1982
  • Jack in the Box: 1985
  • Wendy’s: 1989
  • KFC (popcorn nuggets): 1992
  • Whataburger (chicken bites): 2012
  • Burger King: 2013 (although they previously sold chicken tenders)
  • Checkers/Rally’s (chicken bites): 1986
  • White Castle (chicken rings): 2002
McDonald's chicken tenders
McDonald’s

So what’s up with chicken tenders?

In 2015, The Puritan Backroom in Manchester, New Hampshire, claimed it invented chicken tenders in 1974. However, it still seems most likely that the chicken tender was yet another product of nugget creator Baker and was released shortly after his original chicken nugget recipe was shared with the world.

McDonald’s also added chicken strips to its menus in 1988. They’ve been on and off the menu ever since, with its longest stint off the menu being between 2013 and 2015. During COVID-19, McDonald’s has said that many locations aren’t serving them due to issues sourcing the tenders in certain markets.

Vintage McDonald's restaurant
J.S. Wolf Photography / Flickr

How are McNugget sales today?

Despite their relatively short history at McDonald’s compared to other menu items, the McNugget is the No. 7 best selling menu item. The top? French fries, of course! We’re not sure how many McNuggets they serve on an average day, but since McDonald’s is the second-largest buyer of chicken, we’re guessing it’s a lot!

McDonald's spicy chicken nuggets
McDonald’s

Is fast chicken here to stay?

Yes, in short, chicken at fast food restaurants seems to be here to stay. In fact, as meat alternatives grow more popular, even more fast food chains are trying to create the latest and greatest chicken sandwich. (And let’s not forget about the humble chicken wing, which predates even the nugget with a debut date of 1964 inBuffalo, New York’s Anchor Bar). As this “chicken sandwich” war continues, McDonald’s (and thus suppliers like Tyson) are likely to make even more money off chicken. Even as the current trend seems to be chicken sandwiches, it’s doubtful that the McNugget will be leaving McDonald’s any time soon.


Which came first? The history of the chicken nugget

Kaitlyn Farley

Kaitlyn Farley is MediaFeed’s writer/editor. She is a masters of science in journalism candidate at Northwestern University, specializing in social justice and investigative reporting. She has worked at various radio stations and newsrooms, covering higher-education, local politics, natural disasters and investigative and watchdog stories related to Title IX and transparency issues.

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