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.”
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.
I coined the phrase chicken fingers in 1978 by selling a product in my deli. I owned Matt’s deli in North Tonawanda, NY. I bought the product from Imperial Foods out of Scranton, Pa. Emmit Roe owned the company. Do your homework.
Leonard, thanks for writing. To date you’re the fourth or fifth person who has claimed to us to have coined the phrase. I think it may have been one of those things that was floating in the ethers.
David is right. My Dad used to use the phrase “Chicken fingers” on radio ads for his diner in Lafayette GA. prior to 1978. You might have heard the phrase start up about that time, but I know for a fact you didn’t invent it in 1978. My Dad didn’t, either. Do your homework buddy. I’m also fairly certain that his distributor was not from your deli as well.
Wow! We got ourselves a chicken fingers war!
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!
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.
“Chicken fangers.” Love that! Many thanks for sharing this memory, Purpurata.
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.
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.
Thanks, fritz. What I find fascinating is how there are different perspectives (oral and written) on the same historical subject.
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.
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.