From Southern Tradition to Mechanical Marvel: How Fried Chicken Lost its Bones

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[Photograph: Mike Mozart, Flickr]

If you were to draw a fried chicken family tree, the McNugget wouldn't appear until one of the outermost layers of leaves. Along the way you'd pencil in World War II, something called the Russian Wheat Deal, and a gentleman named Rene Arend. But as far out as the McNugget is, you'd still have to go a little further to see the sky, as the McDonald's icon was only the first generation in a long line of boneless poultry products that have redefined the way we eat chicken.

American bone-in fried chicken is as old as the Thirteen Colonies, in large part thanks to Scottish immigrants, keen on frying chicken, who settled in the southern colonies in the 17th and 18th centuries. The Southern tradition was perpetuated by African slaves, who "were allowed to own chickens," Dr. Kym Rice wrote to me in an email.

Rice is the Director and Chair of Museum studies at George Washington University, and has written extensively on slavery and African American life in the antebellum South. According to Rice, slaves "managed [chickens] and sold the eggs back to the slaveholder and other whites in their neighborhoods." When the hens grew too old to lay eggs, slaves would fry the birds in lard.

For 200 years, this traditional fried chicken went largely unchanged. Sure, it was subject to all kinds of regional variations, batters, dredges, and spices, but the fundamental recipe was always the same: hack up a chicken, coat it in starch, and fry it in fat. It always had bones.

But a few key technological advancements in the 20th century altered American fried chicken forever. Seemingly out of nowhere, fast food chains started slinging chicken nuggets. Diners fried up chicken fingers. Bars stocked up on boneless "wings" that were anything but. In a span of 15 years, an enormous slice of the American fried chicken diet had lost its bones.

"20 years ago, most chicken was sold whole;" Eric Schlosser wrote in Fast Food Nation in 2001, "today about 90 percent of the chicken sold in the United States has been cut into pieces, cutlets, or nuggets."

How did so much of our fried chicken change in so little time? The journey starts with a war.

The Rise of the Poultry Machine

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[Photograph: Robyn Lee]

The post-war industrial boom played a key role in reshaping the modern poultry industry. Bill Roenigk made this clear to me on a call early one morning. "If you go back to before World War II," he said, "the slaughter, and what they call the evisceration (removing the innards of the bird) was pretty much done by hand. The birds were hung upside down and people moved to the bird." Roenigk, who grew up on a dairy and poultry farm in western Pennsylvania, retired from his position as the Senior Vice President of the National Chicken Council (NCC) last year, where he worked for 40 years. "After World War II," he said, "the people became stationary and the birds moved." Slaughter facilities came to resemble automobile assembly lines.

This was the first step in the mechanization of poultry processing. But the transition had a slow start. "If we go way back into the '60s, and even into the early '70s, pretty much everybody thought about a whole carcass chicken," Roenigk said. "You either bought a 29 cents/pound chicken or you didn't." He pointed out that the USDA started reporting the price for boneless, skinless breast meat for the first time in 1971, "signaling that it was big enough on the market that it have its own pricing."

Despite these advancements, beef remained the front-runner in per capita consumption in the years following World War II. The NCC began documenting these numbers in 1965, and beef consumption remained on a steady climb until it peaked in 1976, when Americans ate 94 pounds of beef per capita. "Back in those days, you could buy three pounds of ground beef for a dollar," Roenigk said. "Now you can't buy one pound of ground beef for three dollars."

The McDonald's Effect

[Photograph: Vicky Wasik]

In 1953, architect Stanley Meston designed the golden arches and the red/white checkered tiles that defined the early McDonald's aesthetic. Five years prior, in San Bernardino, California, McDonald's was founded with a nine-item menu. The pièce de résistance was a 15-cent hamburger. There was a cheeseburger too, along with coffee, potato chips, and pie. There was no chicken.

The growing McDonald's franchise played a substantial part in the post-war American hunger for beef. But in 1968, the beef supply took a hit after blight began in the Corn Belt, which drastically reduced the supply of livestock feed. The blight lasted for years, going full blown in 1970, and was compounded even further in 1972 when the U.S. sold vast amounts of grain at subsidized prices to the Soviet Union in a move called the Russian Wheat Deal.

With fewer carbs to feed to cattle, farmers were forced to diminish the size of their herds. Fewer cows meant less meat and a higher market price. No more 15-cent hamburgers.

McDonald's had been peddling the Filet-O-Fish sandwich since 1962, but the sandwich didn't sell well enough to offset burger losses, especially with reports of rising chicken consumption. Fuel prices were on the rise in the early '70s, and American families were eating more meals at home. The fast-growing franchise, facing plummeting sales, needed a new source of revenue. And chicken—with its new, boneless supply chain—was the answer.

Enter the Nugget

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[Photograph: Brandon Wang, Flickr]

"'I have an idea,' Fred Turner, the chairman of McDonald's, told one of his suppliers in 1979," Schlosser wrote in Fast Food Nation. "'I want a chicken finger-food without bones, about the size of your thumb. Can you do it?" Chicken fingers had surfaced on menus at Chinese-American restaurants in the mid-'60s, thanks to the rising popularity of heavily fried pu pu platters.*

But Turner was the first to consider mass-market production of a boneless chicken product. The answer to his question, with help from Keystone Foods and Gorton's (which had been making frozen, breaded, ready-to-cook fish sticks since 1953), was a resounding yes.

* Kowloon Restaurant was one of the first, opening in Saugus, MA in 1950. Madeline and Bill Wong took it over in 1958 and, as Bill's son Bobby explained to me, Bill took a trip to Hawaii in the '60s and found fried chicken tenders were all the rave on Polynesian pu pu platters across the island. Chicken fingers have been on the menu at Kowloon ever since.

Keystone's R&D team worked with Rene Arend, the first executive chef for McDonald's, and food scientists from the Golden Arches chain, to develop a product that answered Turner's question. The Chicken McNugget was introduced in 1979. "The initial test-marketing of McNuggets was so successful," wrote Schlosser, "that McDonald's enlisted another company, Tyson Foods, to guarantee an adequate supply."

The Chicken McNugget became available nationwide in 1983. With help from the McNugget Mania campaign, the McNugget accounted for 12% of the $8 billion in sales McDonald's did that year. The fruition of Turner's idea revolutionized fast food and forever changed the poultry industry. "The industry not only became more productive in terms of producing a live bird," Roenigk told me, "but also it became much more productive and efficient at producing all these various parts and prepared products that we see in the market now."

The Boneless Bird Flaps its Wings

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[Photograph: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

Burger King added (and trademarked) Chicken Tenders to its menu two years later. Their version was originally cut lengthwise from chicken breasts, which they proudly talked up in commercials. Although created to compete directly with the McNugget, the "tender" is derived from tenderloin, the elongated piece of meat beneath the breast, closest to the bone. Burger King was using whole breast meat, not the tenderloin exclusively, but it was unadulterated all-white breast meat regardless.

With McNuggets and Chicken Tenders dominating the fast food and poultry markets, Eugene Gagliardi saw an opportunity. "There was a glut of dark meat on the marketplace," he told me on the phone, speaking from his home in Pennsylvania while referring to consumer trends of the '80s. Gagliardi, founder of Creativators and consultant to the meat poultry industry, will turn 85 in October. He has been working in the meat business since 1937 and has more patents for food products than anyone. He invented the Steak-Umm in 1969, and in 1980 sold his family business for $20 million, proving how much real money there is in meat innovations. "So I came up with a product called hot thighs." There would be some twists and turns, but hot thighs eventually became KFC's Popcorn Chicken.

Gagliardi explained to me how he removed three blades from the center of a stripper machine at a poultry plant in Hummels Wharf, Pennsylvania and sent skinless, bone-in thighs through to get 1/4-inch strips in return. He took the idea to KFC in 1992, where he remembers a "lukewarm reception on the hot thighs." He had an assistant with him. "I said go in that bag, there's strips in there. Get the strips out," he recalled to me of the afternoon. "I said marinate those strips, batter them, and bread them."

They fried the strips. Riffing on the company's 'Finger Lickin' Good' slogan, Gagliardi told his audience they were 'Finger Pickin' Chicken.' "That was the beginning of popcorn chicken," he said. "KFC sold 15 million pounds of it in five weeks." That same year marked the first time Americans consumed more chicken than beef. The numbers would never revert.

I asked Mr. Gagliardi why he thinks there is such demand for boneless meat. "Because, let's face it," he started, "Americans are lazy eaters. They don't like to eat fish with bones. They don't like to eat anything with bones." Which is all well and good in Gagliardi's eyes, unless you're false advertising.

"Watch people eat chicken wings. All they eat is the center, the meat part. That leads you into thinking, 'Let's make boneless wings,' which is a total misconception, because what they call boneless wings are actually breast meat." You had price to factor in here, too. "People didn't know they wanted boneless wings," Roenigk says, "but when the traditional wing—skin on, bone in—became fairly expensive at points in time, creative people said, 'Okay, how can we meet that demand with something that tastes like, but maybe not exactly the same as, a traditional wing.'"

Tyson Foods is responsible for approximately 20% of the boneless wing market share. According to their website, the company processed an average of 40 million chickens a week last year, and tagged $37.6 billion in sales, 30% of which was chicken. Their website, also lists an inventory of 21 boneless wing products. "Boneless, skinless chicken breast" is the first ingredient for 16 of those. Two products have "Portioned chicken breast" listed first, and three list "Chicken breast portions" as the main ingredient. Clearly, it's not the actual wing people are after.

Our Great Boneless Future

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[Photograph: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

Reflecting back on the years when beef was king, Roegnik says, "The generation that took the beef industry to 94 pounds in 1976 was pretty much the older generation that grew up on meat and potatoes." But younger consumers have come to favor lean breast meat to beef: "The generations that have followed have been more concerned about nutrition and dietary concerns."

In 1965, per capita chicken consumption was 34 pounds. Today, that number nears 90. Improvements in the production and processing of birds went hand in hand with a growing interest among the American consumer for a cheaper, healthier protein. "As the companies and machine manufacturers saw the trends towards boneless, skinless, cut-up, and prepared products, they put their resources and emphasis on developments to machinery that would make that process more efficient and more productive," Roenigk explained. "Therefore, you had a mousetrap that people wanted to buy."

The USDA started reporting prices for boneless, skinless thigh meat in 2003. "Traditionally," Roenigk said, "the Hispanic consumer and the Asian consumer love the dark meat" for its richer flavor and texture. "The boneless, skinless thigh meat is taking off, and it's moving beyond the Hispanic and Asian consumer. We see retailers featuring boneless, skinless thigh meat more so than before. I think we'll start to see more of a balance there in the years going forward."

American demand for white meat still dwarfs the dark, but the latter is getting more popular. In January 2003, the USDA reported Southern states produced 700,000 pounds of boneless, skinless thigh meat which sold for 56 cents a pound. In June 2015, that number jumped to 2.5 million pounds at nearly three times the price: $1.57 per pound.

But here's the kicker: Some of the same market forces driving increased dark meat consumption—eaters willing to put flavor above fat content—might also be responsible for a growing resurgence of interest in fried chicken the old fashioned way: with bones.

Restaurants around the country are banking on growing interest in bone-in fried chicken by making it a core feature of their menus. Some of these efforts come from fine restaurants looking to capture some soul food nostalgia, while other fast-casual businesses have their sights set on Shake Shack-level growth.

The most commercially ambitious yet, though, is a boneless offering riffing in Chik-Fil-A's fried chicken sandwiches. But David Chang's Fuku, initially just in New York but with eyes on fast national expansion, has only one main menu item: a fried chicken thigh on a bun. No white meat allowed.