All Things Considered: May 2006
Chicken nuggets and Gonzo journalism
By Jim Knisley
Chicken nuggets and Gonzo journalism
On Feb. 26, Bill Cardoso died at his home in Kelseyville, California. About two weeks later, Robert C. Baker died in his home in North Lansing, New York.
You may have never heard of either man, I can’t recall hearing of either, but Mr. Baker had a profound effect on what you do, while Mr. Cardoso had, for a while, an impact on what I do.
Mr. Baker was an agricultural scientist at Cornell University. His obituary in the New York Times said when Baker looked at chickens he “envisioned chicken nuggets, not to mention chicken hot dogs, helping transform what is now a $29 billion a year poultry industry.”
Baker was hired by Cornell as a professor of poultry science in 1957 to teach, research and act as a liaison with poultry producers, processors and marketers. As his mission he took on the then daunting task of convincing people that chickens were more than just egg producers or a Sunday specialty.
Before Baker, and others of his generation, chicken was inevitably whole bird, and virtually the antithesis of convenient. His research and development work at Cornell led to improved processing techniques and the development of dozens of new products.
These included: chicken baloney, chicken steak, chicken chili, chicken pastrami and others.
All of this depended upon processed chicken, something Baker is credited with inventing in 1963. Baker also helped develop the first deboning machines, which made processing possible.
In 1984, The New York Times wrote: “Robert Baker is something of a chicken Edison.”
Baker even laid the groundwork for chicken nuggets. In the 1960’s he developed methods of binding chicken meat together and having the coating stick to the meat.
A more mundane, but commercially significant, development was his research into ways to barbecue chicken. For many years he went to county fairs across New York State demonstrating how to barbecue chicken.
It’s likely a slight exaggeration, but it can be said that when today’s shoppers look over the poultry section of the meat counter in their local supermarket they are looking at Robert Baker’s legacy.
The other recently deceased man, Bill Cardoso, had, to the best of my knowledge, no involvement or interest in commercial poultry production. He was, however, a writer and editor who coined the word “Gonzo” to describe a form of journalism that flowered brightly in the 1970s.
In its obituary of Mr. Cardoso, The New York Times says Gonzo journalism “bristled with raw disorder, odd humour and piercing insight.”
The best-known practitioner of the art was Hunter S. Thompson, a writer who spent his life on the edge and committed suicide last year.
Gonzo journalism, at its best, stripped away the third party pretense. It mocked the aloof, distanced, supposedly unbiased authoritative voice employed in most journalism and delivered a highly personalized, subjective perspective. One of its basic tenants was that objectivity is impossible and that writers, if they are to best serve the reader, should lay bare all their prejudices and let the reader sort through it in search of the truth rather than deliver something that simply pretends to be the truth.
Through the 1970s and 1980s many writers tried the technique, including yours truly, and failed.
It takes extraordinary writing skills, a keen eye for the ridiculous and the courage to mock the powerful. It also takes self-confidence and a willingness to absorb the consequences of publicly aired unorthodox opinions.
Gonzo journalism has virtually disappeared. Many of its excesses are not missed, but what is missed is the clarity with which its writers delivered a clearly defined personal perspective. Such clarity would be useful today in an age when all politicians have received media training and their messages are thoroughly vetted by so-called spin-doctors.
Of much more importance than Gonzo journalism were Mr. Baker’s contributions. He helped re-invent chicken (and turkey) and it can be said that today’s industry is standing on his legacy. Imagine where the industry would be if it was still talking about a chicken in every pot as opposed to a chicken on every barbecue and if nuggets had never been invented.