The Man Who Invented Chicken Nuggets—18 Years Before McDonald’s Did

What to eat. What not to eat.
Dec. 28 2012 8:15 AM

The Father of the Chicken Nugget

Robert C. Baker was a poultry savant. But his contribution to fast food has been erased from the history books.

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At the time, poultry farmers were stymied. The need to feed troops during World War II had spurred reorganization in the industry, as well as improvements in chicken genetics and feed—all of which increased the amount of poultry that farmers could raise. After the war, the ability to produce birds remained high, but demand dropped. Homemakers were less interested in buying them than the military had been, because for a home cook, chickens were inconvenient. They were usually sold whole, though some store butchers would cut them up to order, and they were usually cooked by oven-roasting or pan-frying. Those methods were either time-consuming or messy, and a bad fit for the schedules of women moving into postwar office jobs. Steve Striffler, an anthropology professor at the University of New Orleans who wrote a history of chicken production, says that because chickens weren’t sought after, prices slid so low they began to undermine the industry.

The industry needed to do something to raise poultry’s desirability. What, exactly, wasn’t obvious.

Robert C. Baker around 1979.
Robert C. Baker

Photograph courtesy Cornell University.

Enter Baker. The first experiments to emerge from his basement laboratory in Cornell’s Bruckner Hall involved making eggs more attractive: He marketed small ones as a treat for children in a “Kids Pak Egg Carton” and trialed an extra-eggy frozen French toast. Then he turned to chicken, making hot dogs, canned hash, and frozen meatloaf out of hens too old to lay eggs. He market-tested each thoroughly, varying the packaging, introducing the products into local stores with and without advertising, and measuring sales as weeks went by.

Baker’s prototype nugget, developed with student Joseph Marshall, mastered two food-engineering challenges: keeping ground meat together without putting a skin around it, and keeping batter attached to the meat despite the shrinkage caused by freezing and the explosive heat of frying. They solved the first problem by grinding raw chicken with salt and vinegar to draw out moisture, and then adding a binder of powdered milk and pulverized grains. They solved the second by shaping the sticks, freezing them, coating them in an eggy batter and cornflake crumbs, and then freezing them a second time to -10 degrees. With trial and error, the sticks stayed intact. Baker, Marshall, and three other colleagues came up with an attractive box, designed a dummy label, and made enough of the sticks to sell them for 26 weeks in five local supermarkets. In the first 6 weeks, they sold 200 boxes per week.

The whole process—recipe, box design, sales records, even predictions of how much it would cost to add a chicken-stick manufacturing line to a poultry processing plant—was described in the Cornell publication Agricultural Economics Research in April 1963. The publication was one of several food-science bulletins that the university distributed free of charge for decades. No one can say now to whom they went. “They were mailed to about 500 companies,” said Robert Gravani, a Cornell professor of food science, who studied for his doctorate under Baker and then joined the department that his mentor led. “He literally gave ideas away, and other people patented them.”

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Baker consulted for food companies as well, and, according to Gravani, a number of graduate students went on to high industry positions. A McDonald’s representative said there is no record of contact with him. Keeping the batter attached and maintaining flavor would have been issues for any company that wanted to sell processed chicken, according to Bill Roenigk, chief economist and market analyst with the trade group the National Chicken Council. Baker’s publications might well have gone into companies’ archives, he said, and then, “when food technologists sat down to examine those issues, they pulled out his research bulletins and said, ‘OK, where do we go from here?’ ”

Baker never made any money from the billions of nuggets that have been sold over the past three decades. By the time he died in 2006, his connection to them had mostly been forgotten, and only a few obituaries noted it. Even at Cornell, he is best-known for a barbecue sauce that is a staple of firehouse fundraisers; every summer, his daughters run a much-loved barbecue stand at the New York State Fair where “Cornell chicken” is their most popular plate. 

Given nuggets’ later reputation, that might be fortunate. A New York State judge called the McNugget a “McFrankenstein creation” in 2003. Videos of ostensible nugget stuff—“mechanically separated chicken,” a flesh-pink paste being forced out of a grinding machine—come up so high in Google searches that both Snopes.com and the National Chicken Council devote pages to debunking the notion that nuggets are made of it. (Mechanically separated chicken may have been an ingredient in early commercial nuggets—it extracts the maximum amount of meat from carcasses, and Baker used it in other products—but McDonald’s changed its recipe in 2003 to use white-meat pieces, and the rest of the industry followed. The National Chicken Council says the paste now appears only in hot dogs and lunch meat.)

Baker’s family prefers to think of him as someone who did his job thoughtfully and with pride, and who could not have predicted the consequences.

“When he was doing this, it was looked at as progress: producing more food, more cheaply,” Dale said. “For his era, he was extremely successful. But things change; times change. I don’t eat Chicken McNuggets, myself.”

Maryn McKenna blogs for Wired and is the author of Superbug and Beating Back the Devil.

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