The History of Chicken Fingers

When we received a query from Colleen Flood inquiring about the history of chicken fingers, nothing came to mind except silly jokes about chicken lips and hen’s teeth. After all, chickens don’t actually have fingers, do they?

Many of us have memories of “chicken fingers,” “fish sticks,” and other forms of mystery meat composed of who-knows-what portions of who-knows-what animal’s anatomy. It’s oddly discomforting to know that the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)-an agency that prides itself on creating lengthy definitions for cuts of meat and, for that matter, just about anything else we might consider consuming-has no definition for anything called “chicken fingers.” The term is clearly commercial in nature, but it’s an interesting story as to when it first appeared-and why.

To answer the first part of the question, we need look back no further than the early 1990s, when health-conscious Americans worried about consuming red meat but didn’t want to give up the convenience foods of which they’d become accustomed. Boneless, skinless chicken breasts seemed like the ideal dinnertime solution.

Now, if you’ve ever skinned and boned a split chicken breast, it probably wasn’t a perfect replica of the uniformly thin, boneless, skinless chicken breasts found in restaurants and in grocery stores. Yours, like mine, was probably thicker and rather uneven, with parts falling off in a most unprofessional manner. The reason for this can be found in the structure of this cut of poultry. A chicken breast is composed of two separate muscles: a large, flat piece, shaped like a longish rounded triangle, and a tapered narrow flap that’s not unlike the tenderloin in beef. In order to fabricate a chicken breast that is tidy, trim, and at an even thickness so that it cooks at the same rate, the two fillets must be separated.

Given that most Americans prefer to have pieces of protein on their plates that are large enough to cut, the larger, triangular portion lends itself more to dinner. But what of the smaller fillets, the tenderloins, commonly known as “tenders”? The savvy answer for chicken producers was not to try to make a dinner portion out of the tenders, but to sell them as something else: finger food.

Americans love to eat casually. Just about anything we can eat with our hands, we do. When someone saw that chicken tenders sort of looked like fingers, and could be eaten with fingers, a stroke of marketing genius happened. If you’ve ever watched an episode of Mad Men, you may be able to visualize the kind of brain-storming session that could lead to the creation of an anatomical feature that nature never intended.

Compare the two fillets: both are equally low in fat, both are equally tasty, and both cook almost equally fast-actually, fingers tend to cook more quickly. Yet the chicken fingers sell for approximately 7 cents more per pound, wholesale, than the larger cut. When you consider that between three and six million pounds of chicken fingers are sold each year by conventional chicken producers including Tyson, Purdue, and Pilgrim’s Pride, you can understand the drive to push chicken fingers. Essentially, it creates millions of additional revenue each year.

It’s at least comforting to know that “chicken fingers” are not in the same category as the dreaded mystery meats of our school days. Whereas nuggets are mass-produced out of various scraps and trimmings and then bound together with soluble protein and salt, just like sausage (at least we hope, although we have lingering doubts), the fingers are real chicken breast meat-which is why Jamie Oliver included them in his redesigned school lunch program. It was a brilliant idea, taking a junk food that children already liked and replacing it with a healthier, more natural item that they would not automatically reject. Chicken fingers also lend themselves to quick-and-easy preparation in a variety of recipes-a characteristic that helped Oliver wear down the resistance of the food-service personnel, which was essential to the success of his school lunch program as well as his Emmy award-winning television program, Food Revolution.

The fact of the food’s success is no mystery at all, not when you consider how simple it is to turn a chicken fingers recipe into a family-pleasing dinner And let’s just be thankful that your children will never have to wonder if real chickens have “nuggets.”

Resources

I’d like to thank Bill Roenigk of the National Chicken Council and Sylvia Small of the U.S. Poultry & Egg Association for their help with this article.

Chicken fingers article © 2010 Gary Allen. Photo © 2007 hddod. All rights reserved.

About Gary Allen

Our food history editor, Gary Allen, teaches food writing and various food and culture courses at Empire State College, has been vice-president, newsletter editor and webmaster for the Association for the Study of Food and Society. His books include The Resource Guide for Food Writers, The Herbalist in the Kitchen, The Business of Food: Encyclopedia of the Food and Drink Industries and the anthology Human Cuisine.
His latest book, Herbs: A Global History, a volume in The Edible Series of Reaktion Press, will be published in May 2012. He’s currently at work on another book for the same series—on sausage. Visit him at his website, On the Table, and blog, Just Served.

Comments
Comments
  1. Celeste says:

    Chicken fingers definitely pre-date the early 1990s, at least in the deep south. I’ve seen published recipes for breaded, fried, boneless-skinless breast meat cut into strips in community cookbooks (variously titled fingers, tenders, and strips) dating from the mid-80s.

    • You’re right, of course, Celeste. Certainly the narrow muscle (the tender) has existed as long as there were chickens, and I’m sure that many people discovered that they could be breaded and fried—there’s nothing truly new under the culinary sun. (See Lauralee’s comment, below.)

      However, the commercial items called “chicken fingers,” in business usage, date from the 90s.

      • Celeste says:

        How are you defining “business useage”? Used by the giant chicken processors? A review of display ads for regional fried chicken in the deep South will certainly reveal said item, and the national fast food chains were selling boneless, skinless breaded strips under various names throughout the 80s. (Or is this somehow not business useage?) Perhaps ConAgra or Tyson’s marketing of the “chicken finger” as a use for the specific “tender” muscle dates from the 90s…but that’s not what the original article says, nor what your follow-up post says.

        So what, besides chicken-industry marketing, supports the early ’90s as the genesis of the “chicken finger”?

        • Well yes, “business usage” as used by the giant chicken processors. The second paragraph states “The term is clearly commercial in nature.” Those giant chicken processors created the term, as it is now used, as a way to extract additional profit from a by-product of their boneless fillet business.

          I suspect that we both would prefer to have local free-range happy chickens as the source of our “fingers,” tenders, and strips — but semantic issues are preventing us from seeing our essential agreement. However, the article is not about that. It’s about one tiny aspect of the industry as it is, not as we would like it to be.

  2. Lauralee Hensley says:

    Hey, my mom made them even before they were called chicken fingers. She just called them chicken strips. They probably weren’t that healthy though because she did deep fry them. She usually did this when chickens were on sale, and she bought a bunch of them and cut them up for various types of meals and froze them in their categories in our large freezer in the basement. I didn’t care what they were called, I just liked them. They were a nice change from many of the meatless meals she often made.

    • David Leite says:

      Mostly meatless meals. Wow. How did you like that as a kid? I practically lived on beef growing up.

  3. Karen says:

    Help!! Before I can even read this post, I must confess that I HATE that beady eyed chicken staring at me from atop this page. Can you imagine what fear that generates in my heart and mind??? Of course not. And what?? Chicken FINGERS!! Omigosh, now I have to worry about chickens with fingers coming after me from under the bed or behind the fridge! Really, I will calm myself down and attack this treatise—but first, a snack or a nibble here and there of, umm, maybe some candy corn???

    Karen

  4. Tom B. says:

    I remember (vividly) eating “chicken fingers” from Mac’s Drive-In in Portales New Mexico back in the 1950s (1956? 1957?). A regular treat at our house. Sometimes take-out, sometimes at the drive-in…they came in a white box: chicken fingers, fries, cole slaw, a dinner rol, maybe a pickle slice?, and a small paper cup of catsup.

    • David Leite says:

      You just can’t beat these memories, can you? I didn’t grow up with chicken fingers, but fried clams and clam cakes, so I’m with you reminiscing.

  5. fritz gorbach says:

    I realize this is kind of an old post, but to add comment…I distinctly remember my dad serving “chicken fingers” in his restaurant in the early 80s and these were a commercial product from Tyson or so. I recall McDonald’s McNuggets being released a year or two after I first had a chicken finger and I remember wondering why mc nuggets sucked compared to the chicken fingers.. you’ll have to forgive me if my memory is a little sketchy I was only 5 or so, but definitely predates the early ’90s by a distance.

    • David Leite says:

      Hey, Fritz. Yes, chicken nuggets appeared in the early ’80s, but the author here is discussing chicken fingers–a different product made from 100% chicken breast, not pressed chicken parts. McDonald’s sold them as Chicken Select Strips.

  6. fritz gorbach says:

    Sorry to be picky but you misread my post. I stated that I distinctly remember serving “chicken fingers” and I believed processed nuggets came out sometime after. Chicken fingers, as an all white meat, commercially prepared, named product, were definitely sold in the early 80s.

    Interesting though that there is very little history on the Internet about them. Another site speaks of Chinese restaurant heritage, but at least in my area, (western new york) that is typically a cornstarch batter on white meat a la sweet and sour chicken, and I have my doubts as to the common heritage. I think the connection to Southern cooking is more likely.

    As another aside, the first I recall these turning up in pizzerias and chain restaurants coated in sauce as more of a snack or appetizer seems to be mid or late 80s. Before that they were served as a dinner would be around here with a couple of side dishes. At my father’s restaurant he also made a dip with plain yogurt and honey which I still enjoy.
    Also, I just discovered your site with this search, and I am enjoying it. Thanks for the response and I look forward to exploring more.

    • David Leite says:

      fritz, you’re not being picky, you’re being accurate. I’m going to turn this over to the author, as I’m not an expert in this area.

  7. sanscravat says:

    I frequently have “memories” of things that didn’t happen the way I remember them, or are connected to events that were not actually contemporaneous. It’s the nature of memories to evolve. In an attempt to prevent those “evolved” memories from guiding my writing — I try to rely more on printed records — preferably contemporarily-written ones.

    On the other hand, food historians are always challenged by the task of determining when something was first created. Foods tend to exist for some time before they appear in the written record. We can search for the first appearance of a recipe, for example, but all we can hope to find is the moment when some writer reported on a dish that was already a fait accompli — or should I say “fête accompli?”

    Which is not to say that oral history has no place in this kind of research. It provides color and ambiance that can reveal things about the subject that mere objective dates cannot deliver. Think of it as the difference between nutritional analysis and gastronomy — one provides an answer that ends discussion, while the other invites conversation and collaboration.

    • fritz gorbach says:

      Thanks for your response. That being said, if anyone is that interested in the dates, my father kept an extensive archive of his and others restaurant menus back in the seventies and eighties.

      With a search through some old file cabinets I’m quite sure I could find dated menus showing early use of chicken fingers. The first I remember where printed using Print Shop on our state of the art Apple IIC with the image writer dot matrix printer. Thanks again.

      Fritz

  8. Purpurata says:

    Re. the comment: “However, the commercial items called “chicken fingers,” in business usage, date from the 90s.” I worked for a photographer in Las Vegas from 1981 to 1984. One of our favorite places to eat lunch was a little bar and grill in Vegas, and my absolute favorite meal was “chicken fangers” with cheese sauce for dipping. (The menu had a “Southern” flair; thus the “fangers”.) I know that little place was not the first time I had heard the term “chicken fingers”, so it was definitely in use before the 1990’s.

    • Renee Schettler Rossi says:

      “Chicken fangers.” Love that! Many thanks for sharing this memory, Purpurata.

  9. Gary says:

    I’m sure you’re right, Purpurata. One of the hardest things for a food historian to do is determine when a food (or, as in this case, its name) first appeared. The best we can hope for is to find the earliest appearance in print — which is usually long after they are in common usage. In the case of “chicken fingers,” the date I used came from a trade publication.

    These are notoriously inaccurate. I once read an official corporate history that said College Inn chicken broth was created in the 1930s, yet I had a newspaper ad for the product from 1923. When I sent them a PDF of the page, complete with ad and date, I received no response whatsoever.

    History, apparently, is whatever one wants to make it. We are probably better off thinking of history not as absolute fact, but as an invitation to have discussions like this!

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