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Helen Rosner: On Chicken Tenders

Boundaries of Taste: Perfection, performance, and the allure of the kids’ menu.

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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.

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17 comments for Helen Rosner: On Chicken Tenders

  1. Comment by Sam on June 12, 2015 at 12:05 pm

    The chicken tender does seem amorphous, place-less and timeless, but maybe that story will emerge in the next few years. The first, truly perfect chicken tender (as described here) I experienced was at Guthrie’s in Auburn, Alabama in the mid-90’s. Their story goes back to the late 70’s. Don’t be fooled by Raising Cane’s, their founder has admitted (although he might not anymore) that his concept is a direct copy of Guthrie’s.

  2. Comment by Madeleine on June 12, 2015 at 6:58 pm

    “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.” — Arbitrary, meaningless, professional-sounding but wholly contrived. I think this essay about chicken fingers is possibly the perfect content for other food careerists to pass around on Twitter, noting their equally-contrived appreciation for it.

  3. Comment by jackson on June 16, 2015 at 11:08 am

    Clearly an opinion of someone under forty. If you ever ate fried chicken before chickens completely lost their flavor, you would not be raving on about chicken tenders or any other pre-formed “food” that requires a coating to have any flavor. Fried chicken, and even baked chicken, used to be delicious because the chicken itself was flavorful. Chicken tenders are toddler food.

  4. Comment by jillian on June 20, 2015 at 12:02 am

    It is possible that at this point in life (just over 60) one starts to be less interested in food…after years of enthusiastic foodie indulgence I am a bit bored with mealtime. Never in this time have I ever been a fan of chicken tenders. No, I do not love them. I do not really know anyone who loves them, unless it is their little snacky secret.

  5. Comment by Steve Woodward on June 20, 2015 at 12:48 pm

    By some convergence of cosmic forces, your essay appeared just as a team of my transmedia students at Central Washington University completed their multiplatform story of the ChickenStrip Kid. These twentysomethings chose to tell the tale of Chet, a fictional student unlucky in love, but rich in the comfort afforded by the ubiquitous chicken tenders offered night and day by the university’s dining service. (Although the students referred to the tenders as strips, I now recognize that they were really talking about tenders, thanks to your article.)

    Although the term is over, the story of the ChickenStrip Kid lives on through social media:

    Thanks for the article. Suburban 6-year-olds, starving college students and food critics aren’t that different after all.

  6. Comment by Vima on June 22, 2015 at 12:28 pm

    I’m on my iPhone and I can’t believe I just “donated” $5 to read your piece on chicken tenders that was save a couple of words was mostly fluff and padding. Hope my 5 bucks pays for a nice meal!

  7. Comment by David B. on June 22, 2015 at 4:23 pm

    This was awful. To be fair, I stopped reading after 3-4 paragraphs but I don’t think anything came after that that could have possibly redeemed this. To be even fairer (I hope), I live in Europe, where people generally live to eat, so reading such americo-centric eat-to-live crap is difficult to digest, even with the most open of minds.

  8. Comment by lin on June 22, 2015 at 8:49 pm

    I chef too, i love chicken tenders and so do my children. My daughter loved the chicken tenders at Meijer’s in Michigan so she had her birthday party there. The deli people were so nice.

    What we like about chicken tenders is that breading must stick as you say but thin too and a bit spicy with some Spanish paprika and just a hint of garlic to the breading. Thats why the no sauce is correct for your third point.

    I always bring side dishes of American potato salad, cold slaw, and/or baked beans which really round-out the chicken tender flavor.

  9. Comment by tooki on June 23, 2015 at 7:19 am

    You know they were called “chicken fingers” nearly a century ago? It’s not a neologism invented to mask subpar chicken tenders.

  10. Comment by Valerie Nordberg on June 23, 2015 at 11:26 am

    I read the article with appreciation. Anyone who loves chicken tenders like the author should be in the first row of activists fighting for respect to be shown and a cruelty-free existence given to the live owners of those breast pieces which give so much pleasure in the eating. A chicken’s life is a truly miserable one..

  11. Comment by Isabel De Sio on June 24, 2015 at 12:57 pm

    I read the entire article, which could have been several paragraphs shorter, thinking in the end I would find the perfect recipe. Did I miss something? I can only say that the verbiage is a reflection of the Facebook generation that believes even the most meaningless stream of though is worthy of someones valuable time…

  12. Comment by David wall on August 1, 2015 at 9:55 am

    If you’ve never been to a Raising Cane’s (closest one might be in Boston) you should. Theirs is the apotheosis of the chicken finger. In fact, it’s the only thing on the menu.

  13. Comment by Jellybelly on August 19, 2015 at 7:15 am

    This is the best. And I’m not even a meat eater.

  14. Comment by Anna Borys on March 16, 2016 at 5:03 pm

    “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.”

    Amen!

  15. Comment by John barry on April 27, 2016 at 11:41 am

    Wow! Never have I witnessed such animosity for a well written article. You’ve missed the entire point of the article. Yes she’s discussing chicken tenders, but the main point any halfwit will take away is the joy of returning to simplicity after everything you eat is a social statement of worth or an experiment expanding the boundaries of your palate and tastebuds. It’s about being so jaded to pleasure that all you long for is simple which ironically allows you to feel pleasure again. You anonymous angry folk seriously need to get laid because you take every article personally, or perhaps you’re just pathetic trolls.

  16. Comment by Amy on April 29, 2016 at 5:58 pm

    I’m a vegetarian and I don’t love chicken tenders.

    I’m not offended by this article, I’m genuinely baffled by it.

  17. Comment by Josh on May 6, 2016 at 10:55 am

    The amount of vitriol this article has received only deepens the drama of the chicken tender for me. Add controversial to the list, chicken tenders is one of the most divisive issues of our time.

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