Monday, May 15, 2006

Bring Back the Bone

In my estimation, one out of every four new restaurants that open in my hometown is an establishment that features fried chicken fingers as its main offering.

When I was a kid, fried chicken eaten outside of my grandmother’s house came in buckets and had bones in it. I don’t remember seeing small finger-sized boneless chicken breasts served in a restaurant until 1982— the dawning of the McNugget era.

According to the online encyclopedia Wikipedia, “McDonald's Chairman Fred Turner approached one of his suppliers in 1979 and requested ‘I want a chicken finger-food the size of your thumb. Can you do it?’ The McNugget was quickly invented thereafter.” It wasn’t until 1983 that the McNugget was rolled out on a nationwide scale, but by then the Saturday morning cartoons were filled with advertisements for chicken nuggets and Happy Meal boxes were filled with McNuggets. There was no turning back.

The children who were born in the late 1970s and early 1980s represent the first in many subsequent generations that prefer fried chicken without the bone and white meat over dark meat.

Therein might lay our two biggest tragedies— people don’t eat as much dark meat as they used to, and people eat fried chicken away from home more than they do at home.

In my day, kids ate drumsticks. I don’t remember anyone fighting over who was going to get the breast at a family event. My grandfather always said he liked the wing, but I suspect he knew that it was the least popular piece, and he was taking one for the home team.

I love dark meat chicken and turkey. In a modern world where mass-produced chickens go from an egg to the freezer in a matter of weeks, we have given up a lot of flavor, and in our rush to eat white meat over dark; we have given up still more.

Today free-range chicken is available in most areas. Free-range chickens have been allowed to walk around and eat a more varied and healthful diet. In South Mississippi there has been a recent movement towards pastured poultry where farmers raise chickens in pens that are moved daily from one grassy area of a pasture to another. The end result is a substantial increase in flavor over mass produced chicken.

I refuse to be a parent who raises a kid who eats nothing but fried chicken fingers. It frustrated me so much last week; I busted both of my kids out of school, drove them to New Orleans and made them eat lunch at Galatoire’s. They ate crabmeat au gratin, Crabmeat Maison, Oysters en Brochette, and fried shrimp (the underwater cousin of the fried chicken finger, but adventurous enough for a four-year old) and loved every minute of it.

On the way down to New Orleans my wife reminded me that our children hardly ever eat chicken fingers. “I don’t care,” I told her. “We’re doing it as preventative medicine.”

I make my kids try everything. One bite is all I ask. When eating in a fine-dining restaurant we usually hit about 20 percent, but that’s 20 percent more than they were eating, and after four or five visits they have usually added six or seven new food items to their dining repertoire and chicken fingers begin to seem boring and unappealing.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not a food snob. My restaurants serve a lot of fried chicken tenders to kids and grown ups alike. I eat a boneless chicken breast sandwich every once in a while. But given the choice of fried boneless skinless chicken breast over a fried drumstick or a thigh, and I’m going with the latter every time. It just tastes better and that is what I want my children to learn.

This is not a fried chicken vs. grilled/roasted chicken argument. Of course roasted chicken is healthier, but in the Deep South, fried chicken is king.

We are raising a chicken finger generation. It’s probably too late to turn the tide. I guess we can count our blessings that it wasn’t the McRib that caught on 25 years ago.

Roasted Chicken

1 5-pound Chicken, whole
2 Tbl. Light olive oil
1 Tbl Kosher salt
1 Tbl. Black pepper
1 Tbl Poultry Seasoning
1 /2 Onion, small, rough chop
1 /2 Carrot, peeled and rough chopped
1 stalk Celery, rough chop

Preheat oven to 320 degrees.

Thoroughly rinse and drain the chicken. Pat dry with paper towels. Rub the entire surface with olive oil. Season inside cavity and skin with the salt, pepper and poultry seasoning. Stuff vegetables into the cavity of the chicken. Truss chicken. Place in Pyrex baking dish, breast side up.

Bake one hour and 20 minutes. Remove from oven and allow chicken to rest for 20 minutes before carving. Yield: 4-6 servings

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