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a few chicken nuggets displayed with an American flag

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Nugget Nation

The delicious true story behind a fast-food favorite  

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A Rare Meal
Before the mid-1900s, chickens were hard to prepare. People ate them only as a special treat.

    Hamburgers were under attack!

    For years, Americans had been in love with burgers. And few companies sold more of them than McDonald’s. But in 1977, the U.S. government warned that beef burgers were unhealthy. Eat chicken instead, experts said.

    Chicken?!

    McDonald’s leaders panicked. How could they make Americans love chicken the way they loved burgers?

    The answer was the chicken nugget.

    Hamburgers were under attack! 

    For years, Americans had loved burgers. And McDonald’s had sold a lot of them! But in 1977, the U.S. government said beef burgers were not healthy. Experts said to eat chicken instead.

    Chicken?!

    McDonald’s leaders panicked. They were a burger place. Would their customers buy chicken? How would they even serve chicken? 

    The answer was the chicken nugget.

    Hamburgers were under attack!

    For years, burgers had been extremely popular with Americans. And to satisfy their craving for a beef patty on a bun, people often went to McDonald’s. But in 1977, the U.S. government issued a warning about beef being unhealthy. Eat chicken instead, experts said.

    Chicken?!

    McDonald’s leaders panicked. How could they make chicken as popular as burgers?

    The answer was the chicken nugget.

Chicken Genius

Natthawut Nungsanther/EyeEm/Getty Images

    It wasn’t McDonald’s that first invented the nugget. It was a scientist named Robert Baker. In the 1950s and ’60s, Baker worked with farmers and chicken companies. His mission? Get Americans to eat more chicken.

    Until the mid-1900s, chicken had been a fancy food. People ate it only for special occasions. That’s because getting a bird on the table took work. First, you had to raise one in your backyard or buy one at the market. Then you had to kill the bird, drain its blood, scoop out its insides, and pluck out its feathers in sticky clumps. (Yikes!)

    By the 1950s, cooks could skip these steps. Grocery stores sold chickens that were ready to cook. But they still took time to prepare. People preferred quick foods like burgers, hot dogs, and fish sticks. And chicken farmers struggled to make money.

    Baker had to make chicken easier to cook and eat. But how?

    McDonald’s didn’t invent the nugget. Robert Baker did. He was a scientist. In the 1950s and ’60s, Baker worked with farmers. He also worked with chicken companies. His goal was to get Americans to eat more chicken.

    Until the mid-1900s, chicken was a fancy food. People ate it only for special occasions. Why? Preparing chicken took a lot of work. First, you had to raise one in your backyard. Or you could buy one at the market. Then you had to kill it. You also had to drain its blood, scoop out its insides, and pluck out its feathers. (Yikes!)

    By the 1950s, cooks could skip these steps. Grocery stores sold chickens. They were ready to cook. But they took time to prepare. People liked quick foods better. They liked burgers, hot dogs, and fish sticks. Chicken farmers struggled to make money.

    Baker had to make eating chicken easier. But how?

    McDonald’s didn’t invent the nugget. The credit goes to a scientist named Robert Baker. In the 1950s and ’60s, Baker worked with farmers and chicken companies. His mission was to get Americans to eat more chicken.

    Until the mid-1900s, chicken had been a fancy food that people ate only on special occasions. Why? Getting a bird on the table took a lot of work. First, you had to raise one in your backyard or buy one (alive) at the market. Then you had to kill the bird, drain its blood, scoop out its insides, and pluck out its feathers in sticky clumps. Yikes!

    By the 1950s, you could skip these steps and instead buy a ready-to-cook chicken at the grocery store. But chicken still took time to prepare. People preferred quick foods like burgers, hot dogs, and fish sticks. As a result, chicken farmers struggled to make money.

    Baker wanted to make chicken as easy to eat as those fast foods—but how?

The Nugget Is Born

Courtesy of Cornell University

    Baker and his team spent hours in his lab. They invented chicken hot dogs, chicken meat loaf, and chicken baloney for sandwiches. But Baker was proudest of the chicken stick. It was a bite-size chunk of chicken coated with batter. Does that sound familiar? 

    Baker called his invention the “Chicken Crispie.” He gave the recipe away for free. But it didn’t catch on—until nearly 20 years later. That’s when McDonald’s was facing its burger crisis.

    Baker worked with a team. They created chicken hot dogs and chicken meat loaf. They made chicken baloney for sandwiches. But Baker was proudest of the chicken stick. It was a bite-sized chunk of chicken. It was coated with batter. 

    Baker called it the “Chicken Crispie.” He gave the recipe away for free. But it didn’t become popular. Then, nearly 20 years later, McDonald’s faced a burger crisis.

    Baker and his team spent hours in his lab, inventing chicken hot dogs, chicken meat loaf, and chicken baloney for sandwiches. But Baker was proudest of the chicken stick, a bite-sized chunk of chicken coated with batter. Does that sound familiar? 

    Baker called his invention the “Chicken Crispie.” He gave the recipe away for free, but it didn’t catch on—until nearly 20 years later, when McDonald’s was facing its burger crisis.

Instant Hit

    In 1977, leaders at McDonald’s knew they had to come up with a new menu item—and fast. The company’s head chef tried some ideas. Chicken potpie? Taste testers wrinkled their noses. Bone-in fried chicken? KFC already did that. Onion nuggets? Just . . . no.

    But wait: What about chicken nuggets? The idea was already out there—thanks to Baker’s Chicken Crispie. And that became McDonald’s new secret weapon.

    In 1983, Chicken McNuggets appeared in McDonald’s restaurants. They were an instant hit—even though they were really no healthier than burgers. 

    Baker never made money off his most famous invention. But he achieved his goal. America turned into a nation of chicken eaters. And today we gobble up more than 2.3 billion orders of chicken nuggets each year—for better or worse. 

    It was 1977. McDonald’s leaders knew they had to come up with a new food.  And they had to do it fast. They tried different ideas. Chicken potpie? Bone-in fried chicken? Onion nuggets? Nothing was right.

    Then someone thought of Baker’s Chicken Crispie. And that became McDonald’s new secret weapon.

    McDonald’s began serving Chicken McNuggets in 1983. They weren’t healthier than burgers. But they were an instant hit. 

    Baker never got rich from his invention. But he achieved his goal. Americans ate more chicken. Today, we eat more than 2.3 billion orders of chicken nuggets each year! 

    After the beef warning, leaders at McDonald’s knew they had to come up with a new menu item—fast. The company’s head chef experimented with different ideas. Chicken potpie? Taste testers wrinkled their noses. Bone-in fried chicken? KFC already did that. Onion nuggets? Just . . . no.

    Then an old, ignored recipe came to mind—and Baker’s Chicken Crispie became McDonald’s new secret weapon.

    When Chicken McNuggets appeared in McDonald’s restaurants in 1983, they were an instant hit! But they were really no healthier than burgers. 

    Baker never made money off his most famous invention, but he achieved his goal. America turned into a nation of chicken eaters. And today we gobble up more than 2.3 billion orders of chicken nuggets each year—for better or worse. 

Mac and Cheese Mania

How a fancy dish from Europe became an all-American classic 

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    The silverware sparkled. The candles glowed. Delicious smells filled the dining room. It was February 1802. President Thomas Jefferson was having a dinner party at the White House.

    Soon, the table was loaded with good food. There was tender beef, roast turkey, and a soup with rice. But that night, Jefferson was serving something extra special. He had discovered this exotic dish in France. It was a treat often made for kings and queens: macaroni and cheese.

    It was February 1802. President Thomas Jefferson was in the White House. He was having a dinner party. 

    Good food was placed on the table. There was tender beef, roast turkey, and a soup with rice. But that night, there was something extra special. Jefferson had discovered an exotic dish in France. It was a treat often made for kings and queens. It was macaroni and cheese.

    The silverware sparkled, the candles glowed, and delicious smells filled the dining room. It was February 1802. President Thomas Jefferson was hosting a dinner party at the White House. 

    Soon, the table was loaded with good food, including tender beef, roast turkey, and a soup with rice. But that night, Jefferson was serving something extra special: macaroni and cheese. He had discovered this exotic dish in France. It was a treat often prepared for kings and queens.

GraphicaArtis/Getty Images ; Shutterstock.com 

Fancy Food

    Jefferson wasn’t the first person to enjoy mac and cheese. The first recipes were written in Italy in the 1300s. From there, the dish spread across Europe.

    In the late 1700s, rich American travelers sampled mac and cheese in Europe. Jefferson was one of those travelers. For five years, he lived and worked in France. James Hemings—his enslaved Black cook—went with him. Hemings’s job was to learn how to cook like the French. 

    When Hemings came back, he trained other chefs at Jefferson’s home. Mac and cheese became a regular at Jefferson’s dinners. But most Americans didn’t start eating it until much later.

    People first wrote recipes for mac and cheese in Italy in the 1300s. From there, the dish spread across Europe.

    In the late 1700s, rich American travelers ate mac and cheese in Europe. Jefferson was one of those travelers. For five years, he lived and worked in France. James Hemings went with him. Hemings was an enslaved Black cook. His job was to learn how to cook like the French. 

    After returning to America, Hemings trained other chefs at Jefferson’s home. Mac and cheese was often served at Jefferson’s dinners. But most Americans didn’t start eating it until much later.

    Jefferson wasn’t the first person to enjoy mac and cheese. The first recipes were written in Italy in the 1300s, and from there, the dish spread across Europe.

    In the late 1700s, rich Americans traveling around Europe sampled mac and cheese. Jefferson was one of those travelers. For five years, he lived and worked in France. James Hemings, his enslaved Black cook, traveled with him and learned how to cook like the French. 

    When Hemings returned to America, he trained the other chefs at Jefferson’s home, and mac and cheese became a regular dish at Jefferson’s dinners. But most Americans didn’t start eating it until much later.

via Wikimedia Commons

YUM!  
This ad from 1948 shows Kraft Dinner as a quick, easy, and tasty meal.

Hard Times

    By the 1930s, American cooks had changed the mac and cheese recipe. They made it with cheap American cheddar instead of fancy Italian Parmesan. And this was a good thing. 

    In the 1930s, Americans needed cheap meals. The U.S. was in the middle of the Great Depression. Millions of people were out of work. Mac and cheese was the perfect food for hard times. 

    Thanks to a pasta salesman in St. Louis, Missouri, it was also easy to make. The salesman attached packets of Kraft grated cheese to boxes of noodles. He called it a “meal kit.” Leaders at the Kraft company heard about the salesman’s idea. They turned his creation into a new product called “Kraft Dinner.” 

    To struggling families, Kraft Dinner seemed like a small miracle. It was a filling dinner for four people that you could make in minutes. And it cost only 19 cents! In the first year alone, the company sold 8 million boxes.

    By the 1930s, Americans came up with a new way to make mac and cheese. They didn’t use fancy Italian Parmesan cheese. Instead, they made it with cheap American cheddar cheese. And this was a good thing.

    In the 1930s, Americans needed cheap meals. The U.S. was in the middle of the Great Depression. Millions of people had lost their jobs. Mac and cheese was the perfect food for hard times. 

    Thanks to a pasta salesman, it was also easy to make. The salesman attached packets of Kraft grated cheese to boxes of noodles. He called it a “meal kit.” Leaders at the Kraft company heard about it. They turned it into a new product to sell. They called it “Kraft Dinner.” 

    Kraft Dinner seemed like a small miracle to struggling families. It was a filling dinner for four people. And you could make it in minutes. Best of all—it cost only 19 cents! The company sold 8 million boxes that first year.

    By the 1930s, American cooks had changed the mac and cheese recipe, using cheap American cheddar instead of fancy Italian Parmesan—and this was a good thing.

    The U.S. was in the midst of the Great Depression, and millions of people were unemployed. Americans needed cheap meals, and mac and cheese was the perfect food for hard times. 

    It was also easy to make—thanks to a pasta salesman in St. Louis, Missouri. The salesman attached packets of Kraft grated cheese to the boxes of noodles he was selling. He called it a “meal kit.” Leaders at the Kraft company heard about the salesman’s idea, and they turned his creation into a new product called “Kraft Dinner.” 

    To struggling families, Kraft Dinner seemed like a small miracle. It was a filling dinner for four people that you could make in minutes—and it cost only 19 cents! In the first year alone, the company sold 8 million boxes.

An American Favorite

    Today, Kraft sells nearly a million boxes a day. And mac and cheese is loved by people across the country. You can buy it at a corner store for $1. You can order it topped with lobster at a fancy restaurant. There’s even a National Macaroni and Cheese Day—July 14! 

    Start planning your celebration now. 

    Today, Kraft sells nearly a million boxes a day. And people across America love mac and cheese. You can buy it at a store for $1. You can get it with lobster at a fancy restaurant. There’s even a National Macaroni and Cheese Day—July 14!

    Start planning your celebration now. 

    Today, Kraft sells nearly a million boxes every day. And mac and cheese—made in a variety of ways—is loved by people across the country. You can buy a box of it at a corner store for $1 or order a dish of it topped with lobster at a fancy restaurant. There’s even a National Macaroni and Cheese Day—July 14!

    So start planning your macaroni-and-cheese celebration now. 

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