All Things Considered – March 2013
Not the Usual Suspects
By Jim Knisley
Over the past 100 years, chicken has gone from the occasional Sunday meal of a spent layer or surplus rooster harvested from a backyard flock, to a traditional staple that is available everywhere. Every community of any size will have fast food restaurants dedicated to chicken, while other fast food outlets will feature it and, it is safe to say, every bar in North America has chicken on its, often limited, menu.
This rise came from the inspiration of three most unlikely people – a (until very recently) largely unknown and unheralded university researcher, a woman working in the kitchen of a corner bar and a bankrupt. These three made today’s broiler industry by increasing consumer demand.
The university researcher was Robert C. Baker, a food science professor working out of a basement lab at Cornell University. “Baker was a professor of poultry science, and a chicken savant,” wrote Maryn McKenna in the online journal Slate on Dec. 28, 2012. The foods he and his graduate student assistants invented went on to launch what the industry now calls “further processed poultry.”
Among the foods Baker and his fellow researchers developed was a prototype chicken nugget, or stick. It was a challenge, but once they mastered the food engineering, they test-marketed them in an attractive box, selling them for 26 weeks in five local supermarkets. They completely sold out.
Baker and fellow researchers laid out the whole process in the Cornell publication Agricultural Economics Research in April 1963 and the publication was distributed free of charge, McKenna writes.
In the 1980s, chicken nuggets took off. McDonald’s spurred the development with its determination to add chicken to its menu and by initiating the creation of its own version.
In 1985, Canada Poultryman reported that Cuddy Food Products of London, Ont., was processing 66,000 pounds of boneless, skinless chicken meat daily and producing 4,468 McNuggets a minute for McDonald’s. The plant was utilizing the equivalent of 65 million pounds of live chickens per year.
And that was just the start
Other restaurants were soon producing their own versions and supermarkets began stocking their own frozen nuggets. A new demand for tens of millions of pounds of chicken appeared seemingly overnight.
For the full Slate story on Baker, which I highly recommend, please visit: http://www.slate.com/articles/life/food/2012/12/robert_c_baker_the_man_who_invented_chicken_nuggets.html.
The woman working in the kitchen of the corner bar was Teressa Bellissimo. Late one Friday night in 1964, her son Dominic was tending bar when a group of his friends arrived. They were hungry and Dominic asked his mother to prepare something for them to eat.
She looked around the kitchen at the Anchor Bar in Buffalo, N.Y., and spotted a pile of chicken wings that had been destined for the stockpot for soup and decided to take a chance and try something.
She deep fried the wings and flavoured them with a sauce – the wings were a hit with Dominic’s friends and quickly became part of the Anchor Bar’s menu. Soon people from across Buffalo and Ontario’s Niagara Peninsula were heading to the Anchor Bar for “wings” (I know because I was one).
Within a few years, wings were everywhere. The National Chicken Council estimated that 1.25 billion chicken wings were eaten on Super Bowl Sunday, 2012. In all of 2012, more than 13.5 billion chicken wings (over three billion pounds) were sold and the Chicken Farmers of Canada estimate that Canadians consume around 77 million kilograms of chicken wings a year.
The last of the three, Col. Harland Sanders, is the best known and for good reason – he brought “finger lickin’ good” chicken to the world. Not bad for someone who was broke when he was 62 years old.
Sanders went broke when the U.S. government built a new Interstate Highway 10 miles away from the old highway on which his restaurant, Sanders’ Court and Café, was located. Sanders was down but not out, as he had a recipe for Southern Fried Chicken that involved pressure-cooking, which he believed produced the best tasting chicken on the planet.
He headed out across the U.S. with bags of his special coating mix in his car and the recipe in his head. He offered restaurant owners a deal: If they liked his chicken, they would turn their restaurants to producing fast food chicken and pay Sanders a nickel for every chicken sold.
Suffice it to say, they liked his chicken. KFC now has more than 17,000 outlets in 105 countries and its contracts account for about 25 per cent of all the 1.7- to 1.8-kilogram broilers produced in Canada.