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When is a nugget not a nugget? (And which one is best?)

We must sometimes confront the great existential questions in life: Does God exist? Do fish sneeze? Is a hot dog a sandwich or a taco?

The answer to the latter question is, of course, none of the above. Hot dogs are sui generis within food taxonomy. A hot dog is simply a hot dog.

And chicken nuggets are chicken nuggets.

Nuggets are not, as some fast food restaurants would like you to believe, merely small pieces of chicken. The nugget, a carefully formed piece of industrial forcemeat, is one of this country’s great snack achievements. To call any bite-sized piece of fried chicken a “nugget” is to fly not only in the face of common sense but of decades of nugget consumption.

The reason for this rant is last month’s debut of Popeyes’ new chicken nuggets, which columnist Jenn Harris and I taste-tested on camera along with nugget offerings from other major fast food chains. (You can see that video on the L.A. Times Food YouTube channel.)

Popeyes, the fast food restaurant founded in New Orleans and now owned by Restaurant Brands International, garnered huge amounts of attention for its chicken sandwich debut in 2019 (which Harris and I also reviewed) as well as for a new fish sandwich introduced earlier this year. The chain seemingly has been able to do no wrong recently — until now. With its new “nuggets,” Popeyes has simply introduced a smaller version of its chicken tenders to the market and slapped a new, and unsuitable, name on them.

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Chicken nuggets in boxes from Wendy's, Popeyes and McDonald's.
Chicken nuggets — or are they tenders? — from Wendy’s, Popeyes and McDonald’s.
(Shelby Moore / For The Times)

The chicken nugget, popularized by McDonald’s in the early 1980s, has a considerable backstory. The foundation of the modern-day nugget was created by Cornell University professor Robert Baker, according to an article in Slate, in an attempt to increase the popularity of the bird after World War II. In a specialized poultry products lab, Baker came up with the chicken equivalent of a fish stick in 1963 — shaped, ground chicken held together with pulverized grains and powdered milk, then battered.

The rise of the nugget coincided with chicken’s increasing popularity nationwide and a growing disenchantment with beef — per capita chicken consumption in the U.S. increased from 36 pounds in 1975 to more than 96 pounds in 2020. In that same time period, beef consumption suffered a serious drop, from 88.2 pounds to 58.4 pounds.

The fast food nugget has faced criticism over the years — no one would deign to call them healthy. A federal judge used the term “McFrankenstein” to describe them in 2003, citing a laundry list of ingredients that included sodium aluminum phosphate and dimethylpolysiloxane as an “anti-foaming agent.”

A study published in the American Journal of Medicine in 2013 dissected chicken nuggets from two unnamed national fast food chains in what was colorfully described as an “autopsy.” The researchers concluded, “Chicken nuggets are mostly fat, and their name is a misnomer.” They determined that nuggets contained, at most, 50% meat. The rest was fat, ground bone, nerve, connective tissue and other things you probably don’t want to think about but maybe should. (McDonald’s, for its part, says its McNuggets are made with “100% white meat chicken” but that actual meat constitutes about 45% of each nugget.)

But, love them or hate them, nuggets are forever entwined in our culture. And, be they shaped like boots, stars or even video game characters (one sold on eBay for almost $100,000 because it resembled an “Among Us” crewmate), they are a product of technology, not nature. The world’s largest chicken nugget was unveiled in Secaucus, N.J., in 2013, measuring 3 ¼ feet long and weighing more than 50 pounds — a Pyrrhic victory for humankind, to be sure, but one that reinforced an important point: Nuggets are made, not born.

This brings us back to Popeyes’ new chicken nuggets — bite-sized shreds of fried chicken, which, again, are merely smaller versions of the existing tenders on the menu. While delicious and coated with plenty of Popeyes’ signature light, Corn Flake-like batter, they are simply unworthy of the term “nugget.”

When I want chicken, I’ll eat chicken. But when I want nuggets, give me nuggets.


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