Why Chicken Fingers Are Destroying American Cuisine

Me: So I told him that if he ordered chicken fingers and French fries I wouldn’t talk to him the rest of the night.

My dad: Chicken fingers? He hasn’t grown up yet?

Chicken fingers have ruined American cuisine. I know that the term “American cuisine” immediately connotes McDonald’s hamburgers, frozen dinners…and maybe a charitable apple pie or milkshake. It’s always unhealthy, usually fattening, and disgusting in large quantities. Fried comes a close fourth.

I am incredibly dismayed when I see anyone eating chicken fingers in a restaurant. Chicken fingers are ubiquitous–and they are nothing more than a nicer version of chicken nuggets, just all white meat. Most of the time they aren’t even that good.

As a friend asked me the other day: Why do I bitch about chicken fingers and not hamburgers?

Hamburgers can be eaten many different ways. They are even getting quite upscale (see anything about burgers in New York magazine). They can be cooked differently, and that doesn’t include mixing cheeses, sauces, vegetables, seasonings, or buns. Chicken fingers remain chicken fingers no matter where you go. Burgers can be turkey or vegetarian, soy or bean. Chicken fingers remain smushed chicken bits and fried coating; only the preference for dipping sauce changes: barbecue? honey mustard?

What a limiting meal.

The pervasiveness of chicken fingers, especially with regard to children, is stunting Americans’ palates. For all the talk of obesity in this country, would it hurt a child or a parent to order something a little more nutritious and tasty than a deep-fried piece of meat? Since chicken fingers cannot really be made at home (unlike a delicious burger, which is merely slapping a handful of ground meat on the grill) without much prep and oil, there is no incentive to keep eating them. They are, essentially, junk food for dinner.

Since chicken fingers, like their cousin the nugget, are finger foods, they are by association considered kiddie foods. This isn’t finger food as in appetizers (although if they are included as an appetizer, I immediately think they are doing this to service the kids–ugh–or the host has no taste. It’s usually the latter.), but finger foods as laziness, meant for the ones who do not have purchasing power.

Chicken fingers are incredibly depressing as a meal. They are best hot–that is their taste. They work excellently as a quick junky meal, like at college or break to Wendy’s. Ordering them in a restaurant basically labels you as a person who has no culinary taste, no desire to try anything, someone who is uncultured.

A few summers ago, I was in a nice seafood restaurant with my father in Long Beach Island where a family with several children next to us ordered chicken fingers. We were appalled. They ordered CHICKEN FINGERS in a SEAFOOD RESTAURANT. Why would anyone do such a thing?!?!? It’s gauche. It’s vulgar. It’s a slap in the face to the establishment. Hell, if I was the restaurant, I wouldn’t even bother serving such a thing.

The best children’s meal I ever had was a steak dinner at a nice, upscale restaurant on vacation many years ago. The steak–perfectly tender, a small but fulfilling size, with appropriate sides–was merely a smaller version of an adult-sized entree, but this was listed on the children’s menu. My brother and I were in heaven. We ate the whole thing. My parents loved that we could get an excellent meal at a good price without having to wrap up the rest. We never found another restaurant that had a children’s menu remotely like it, and I’m sure that that place is rarer than people who actually eat rare steak. Most children’s menus feature disgusting, low-market options like the obligatory hamburger, cheeseburger, hot dog, spaghetti, and chicken fingers. How does that distinguish the restaurant? Maybe they dress up the options, but the children’s menus often have little in common with the rest of the establishment’s food. What type of coherence is that? How can we expect to nurture another generation of healthy, smart, cultured food lovers when all they are exposed to is packaged crap?

It will come as no surprise to anyone reading this entry that as a child I dazzled adults by loving such things as bagels, cream cheese and lox, vegetables and dip, and antipasta. I still love those foods, and I’d never exchange them for something as piddly as chicken fingers.

I once asked my brother, after observing this phenomenon of everyone ordering chicken fingers as default when I went out to eat with friends if he did so. He looked at me as if I had asked him if he ever ordered deep fried sneakers as a appetizer.

At least I know we’re on the same page.

(The New York Times verified my opinion by publishing this rant back in May, and I urge everyone to read it. For one thing, it’s way better written than this entry, and offers a brief history of how chicken fingers came to be the food of choice. I reread the article after I wrote this entry, since I hadn’t read it since it was published. And please, for the love of God, do not order chicken fingers when you’re in a restaurant with me again.)

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