Boundaries of Taste: Perfection, performance, and the allure of the kids’ menu.
Image from Flickr user Garrett Ziegler.
By Helen Rosner
I know this about you: you love chicken tenders. You love them. You might not ever eat them—you might be a vegetarian or a vegan, or not consume birds for whatever reason, or not want to deal with the carbs, or not think it’s okay for adult humans with serious opinions about fracking to dip a toe into the children’s menu—but that’s a choice about ingesting them. It’s not you not loving them. Because you do. You love chicken tenders. Everybody does.
This is because chicken tenders are perfect. They’re perfect in flavor, perfect in aroma, perfect in shape, perfect in color. They’re salty and savory, crisp and juicy, easy to eat with the hands but absolutely okay to go at with a knife and fork. Their ubiquity on kids’ menus isn’t a mark against their perfection, but rather proof of it: the kids’ menu is where all perfect foods live. Pizza, hot dogs, spaghetti. But king of all perfect foods is the chicken tender.
Chicken tenders have no history, they have no metatext, they have no terroir.
Perfection is a precarious state. It occupies a narrow peak, the very pinnacle of the mountain. By its very nature, perfection leaves no room for wildness or risk. Perfection is passive, it’s static, it verges on bland. It’s a circle. A cloudless sky. An unmarked page. It’s everything and it’s nothing, and it’s glorious, and it usually comes with fries.
In 2009 I began eating professionally. This isn’t as common among food writers as you might think. Food is a topic, not a practice. Researching and reporting on chefs and restaurants gives you access to an unending feast, but very few people in the food-writing world have jobs that demand the consumption and consideration of actual food. But when I began reviewing restaurants, I become one of them: eating became a job requirement.
This was very weird. Any leisure activity loses some appeal once it becomes mandatory, and eating dinner at New York’s cool new restaurants isn’t an exception to that. The civilian pleasures of dining out are largely connected to ideas of novelty and choice. At a restaurant, you’re getting something you wouldn’t normally get at home: a fully funkadelic dry-aged tomahawk ribeye, a soul-warming bowl of bún bò huế, or the undivided attention of a balletic thirteen-person service team. And you get to make a lot of decisions—what restaurant to go to, what food you want to eat, when and how often you want to go out at all.
Just as we naturally tune out familiar noises or lingering foul smells, we can also become inured to delight.
When you’re eating a meal for a paycheck, all of that is stripped away. And what remains? A miraculous adaptation, the inverse of the receptive adjustments we perform when faced with unpleasantness: just as we naturally tune out familiar noises or lingering foul smells, we can also become inured to delight. In a months-long barrage of sensory spectacle, enchantment rapidly gives way to tedium. Restaurant reviewing is a parade of the extraordinary, a half-dozen special-occasion meals each week. You hear a hundred explanations of how to order, smile your thanks at a thousand amuse bouches, read a million back-of-the-menu culinary manifestos. I texted to my boyfriend on my way from the office to a review dinner: I’m so tired of foie gras. He replied: Read back to yourself what you just typed. You can have too much of a good thing.
But the truly oddest part of being a restaurant critic was what happened to me when I was off the clock. You don’t get into food writing without loving food, loving to eat. I’d always been an adventurous and ambitious eater, ordering the most outlandish things at restaurants and swinging for the fences with my kitchen experiments. And I still was—as long as I was working. But on my own time, ordering delivery or cooking dinner or out with friends, I reverted to the palate of a suburban six-year-old. All I ever wanted was toast with butter, pasta with the thinnest-possible coating of red sauce, or—my salvation, my obsession, the only thing I ever reliably wanted to eat—chicken tenders.
A true connoisseur of the chicken tender knows that there are three immutable rules.
The first is the rule of physical integrity. A tender has a proper shape: flattish, oblong, and gradually tapering from a wide front to a narrow end. Unlike nuggets, which are largely made from processed, re-formed scraps, the chicken tender takes its name from an actual piece of the chicken: the pectoralis minor, a muscle located under the breast, against the sternum. The tenderloin. It’s rare nowadays to get actual tenders when you order them (hence the rise of “fingers” and “strips,” terms of art that veil all manner of creative butchery), but integrity demands that a wedge of breast put at least some effort into mimicking the actual part of the chicken it is trying to be.
The second rule of chicken tenders is that, contra any advice your mother may have given you, what’s on the outside matters infinitely more than anything on the inside. A chicken tender lives or dies by its exterior: batters, breadings, the disappointing faux-sophistication of panko. The subtlety or intensity of its spice and salt. The crispness of the exterior is what creates the tenderness of the interior, its structural cohesion when submerged in hot oil helps the chicken inside stay juicy and good. But it can’t adhere only to itself: a good chicken tender’s breading stays connected to the chicken inside once you take a bite, not slipping off like a silk stocking or the bullshit batter on an onion ring.
The third rule of chicken tenders is that sauce is a last resort. You shouldn’t have to dip your chicken tenders in anything. If you want a vehicle for ranch dressing, order the crudités.
I wasn’t a big-deal restaurant critic; you wouldn’t know my byline. I was writing capsule reviews for the weekly magazine where my day job was covering restaurant news and gossip. But I brought up my curious change in palate with a friend who is a big deal, the kind of guy whose photo is pinned up in restaurant kitchens like a wanted sign, and he nodded with recognition.
“Why do you think every chef says his favorite food is roast chicken, or oysters, or a steak?” he asked. So much complexity makes simplicity appealing. Spending your days trying to one-up your own palate is exhausting. Stepping away from the wood-grilled matsutake mushrooms with nasturtium agrodolce, and towards an uncomplicated hunk of meat is the gastronomic equivalent of collapsing into your bed at the end of a long day.
It’s true that ribeyes and oysters and even pizza and tacos share a soothing simplicity, but nothing is more nothing than a chicken tender. A roast chicken has a certain dinner-party elegance to it, and you know at least the sketch of an origin story for your pizza or your taco—but a chicken tender is a chicken tender is a chicken tender. Some restaurants might try to gussy them up, gently carve each tender from the breast of a bird that lived a happy life and lovingly dust them in a custom spice blend, but a true chicken tender comes out of a five-hundred-count freezer bag. They come from nowhere in particular—when you eat them, you could be anywhere.
Even the other kids’ menu stalwarts have more history to them than the chicken tender, a relatively new addition to the gastronomic landscape that only reached deep-fryer ubiquity in the 1990s. (This itself is a fascinatingly rare phenomenon: when was the last time something truly novel hit the culinary zeitgeist that didn’t have a trademark appended to it?) It takes more than one generation to develop the intricate root system of nostalgia that anchors the ballpark pastoral of hot dogs or nachos, the picket-fence vignette of fried bologna sandwiches, or the dusty-road Americana of a burger and an ice-cold Coke. Chicken tenders have no history, they have no metatext, they have no terroir.
Food means more than it used to—what we do with it means more. Picking this restaurant or that bunch of carrots isn’t just a decision of interest or appetite; it’s telling a story, it’s choosing a tribe.
This deliciousness without backstory was liberating for me when I was reviewing restaurants. I don’t do much of that kind of writing anymore—for the most part, my meals are my own again—but I still need the kind of relief chicken tenders provide. It’s exhilarating to be part of the food world as it rockets from fringe interest to massive cultural force, but there are times when I want to step off the ride, to make a food choice that doesn’t double as a performance of my identity.
Food means more than it used to—what we do with it means more. Picking this restaurant or that bunch of carrots isn’t just a decision of interest or appetite; it’s telling a story, it’s choosing a tribe. Instagram means that once-private pleasures can be even more pleasurable when they’re broadcast to an audience of thousands. I may love the garlic scape pesto I whizzed up at home yesterday, or the peppery buttermilk panna cotta at Blackberry Farm in Tennessee, but more than that, I love broadcasting that love, a narcotic combination of “but it’s my job” rationalization and the validating thrill of a push notification. Every picture of food is a selfie.
Not so with chicken tenders. There’s no narrative to chicken tenders, there’s no performance. That is the substance of their allure: If you’re ordering them, you don’t have to look at the menu. You don’t have to think about whether you’ve been posting a lot of pasta lately or whether it’s kind of passé at this point to go for a kale salad. Chicken tenders aren’t cool. They’re not retro. They’re not funny. They ask nothing of you, and they don’t say anything about you. They are two things, and two things only: perfect, and delicious. That’s enough. That’s everything.
Helen Rosner is the features editor at Eater and co-host of the interview podcast the Eater Upsell. Her work appears in Saveur, New York, Afar, the Hairpin, Departures, and elsewhere. Watch her identity performance unfold in real time on Instagram and Twitter.