Chicken before egg. Egg before chicken. It doesn't matter any more. They are all ending up as nuggets.

In fact, in the past year Americans have eaten 1.25 billion pounds of the deep-fried snacks. Fast-food chains, supermarkets and white tablecloth restaurants are dishing them up with a vengeance. There's probably not a school-lunch program that hasn't offered them, an employe cafeteria that doesn't feature them, a hospital food service that hasn't considered them.

We have less time to cook, less time to chew and an increasing ability to digest only bite-sized pieces, be it food or information. With their appeal to children, grazers and cocktail party givers, nuggets are the hot dogs of the '80s.

The phenomenon took an unusual path. Unlike other food trends, which often start out upscale and work their way down, it was a fast-food chain -- McDonald's -- that first popularized the product in 1983.

Other chains followed suit. Now about 25 to 30 different chains serve some form of chicken nugget, according to Bill Roenigk, director of economic research at the National Broiler Council.

Riding on the advertising coattails of the fast-food industry, processors went into supermarkets, where nuggets now line freezer cases once reserved for fried chicken. (And if it's the nugget shape, not the chicken filling you're after, Swanson stuffs a breading with ham and cheese, Isaly's Klondikes are packed with ice cream and Chef's Pantry fills a nugget with turkey.)

Perhaps the most superfluous marketing of the nugget is Holly Farms' Time Trimmers -- cubed, uncooked chicken breasts nestled into nugget-shaped compartments. That gimmicky packaging and precutting costs you, though. Holly Farms' Time Trimmers were selling for $ 4.29 a pound at Giant last week; the poultry company's regular boneless, skinless chicken breasts were selling for 40 cents less.

Among restaurants, chicken nuggets have gone parmesan (Old Ebbitt Grill), they've gone for the tarragon (Marshall's West End) and they've gone to New York, where the toney Casual Quilted Giraffe sells dark-meat-only nuggets for $ 12 a plate as an appetizer, or as a main course with potato salad and slaw for $ 22. At J. Paul's in Georgetown, you can get them with triple the fat -- sprinkled with garlic salt and deep-fried, they are heaped over potato skins, sprinkled with bacon bits and served with a side of bearnaise sauce.

The Birth of a Nugget

Just as there is a special breed of potatoes grown for potato chips, there are particular chickens whose fate it is to be nuggets.

According to Roenigk, nugget chickens are grown to 5 1/2 to six pounds, as opposed to four pounds for broilers. The larger bird has more breast meat, Roenigk said. (Supermarket specials on legs and leg quarters are often the result of a residue from a big batch of nuggets, Roenigk explained.)

But chicken meat, as it turns out, is not the only ingredient to be found in your nugget.

Go Skins

First the marketer selects whether the meat will be white, dark or both; chopped, ground or left whole, according to Len Yingst, assistant director of research and development for Tyson Foods, which makes more than 1,000 variations for other food companies, fast food chains and institutional accounts.

Skin may or may not be added. Or more skin may be added -- above and beyond what normally occurs on the bird.

In fact, if the ingredient label lists "chicken skin" it means that you're getting that extra dose, according to USDA regulations. However, if the ingredient label doesn't include skin, you don't know whether it has been removed or left on in its naturally occurring proportions.

Why is it added in the first place? The answer depends on whom you ask. "Moisture," said Lana Ehrsam of McDonald's. "Flavor," explained Bojangles' Mary Weyenberg. "Helps the breading adhere to the meat," reported Wendy's Paul Raab. Yingst agrees that all are a factor. "Cost tags along" too, he added.

Nuggets on Parade

The meat (and, in some cases, skin) is then blended with a combination of water to prevent the meat from drying out when fried; sodium phosphate to help retard off-flavors, retain the juices and keep it stable; and salt. Akin to the ingredients in meat loaf, all of these help to hold the works together. Soy protein may be added as an extender.

Next, the nugget is chilled and shaped. But not into just any shape.

Yingst said there has been a lot of consumer testing to find out what shape and size nugget is the most appealing; a company may choose to use several different molds, to make the nugget "look as natural as can be." The mold-formed tidbits are then showered with batter and marched along a bed of crumbs.

If the nugget is for a fast-food account that will finish off the deep frying, it will be blanched in fat before being frozen. If it's headed for a supermarket, it will be deep-fried until fully cooked.

And if it's headed for the microwave once it gets home, chances are it will end up soggy. Zapping nuggets hasn't been particularly successful, as the breading absorbs too much moisture, according to Susan Hanley, manager of product publicity for Con Agra, the company that makes a variety of chicken nugget products under the Banquet name. Hanley said that Banquet has devised a nugget with a different breading to withstand the microwave's moisture-leaching effects.

When a Nugget is a Patty

While you can't tell from the ingredient label whether the meat has been ground, chopped or left whole, you can frequently tell once you bite into it (see tasting story on this page).

What you can deduce from a supermarket label, however, is whether the meat has been chopped and formed with added ingredients such as water, soy proteins or sodium phosphate.

If such ingredients are added, said Maggie Glavin, director of the Standards and Labeling Division of the USDA, the word "patty" or a similiar description must appear somewhere on the front panel.

The policy, admitted Glavin, is "not particularly an informative" one for consumers.

There are other points of confusion. On its new Chicken Sticks labels, for instance, Banquet flags the fact that the "meat used is 100 percent chicken." That's true, but that doesn't mean that the filling is 100 percent chicken. According to a listing provided by Hanley of Con Agra, there are 10 ingredients in the filling.

When a Nugget is a Tender

Burger King recently introduced the new, improved version of the nugget -- the tender -- a whole piece of chicken breast tenderloin instead of dark and light meat that has been chopped or ground. With its "Ain't Nothin' Like the Real Thing" ad campaign, Burger King disparaged McDonald's for processing its McNuggets.

When tenders first appeared, they made such a splash that Burger King had to suspend advertising after three weeks while one of its suppliers, Tyson Foods, put another plant in operation to accommodate the demand.

It appears that tenders are the next wave for the supermarket as well. "Burger King has done a lot to promote chicken tenders and at the same time denegrate the processed patties," said Daun Kauffman, associate product manager of boneless product lines at Weaver. Kauffman said that Weaver is presently shipping a frozen tender product that should appear on the shelves soon.

Ain't Nothin' Like the Real Thing

While local restaurateurs and marketers attribute part of the success of the nugget to the fact that it's made from chicken and not beef, healthful fare it is not.

Per three-ounce serving, McDonald's McNuggets have almost twice as much fat as a regular hamburger.

If you're going to go the fast-food route, however, you're better off with a tender. All of the nuggets sampled in the tasting have more fat than any of the tenders.

Still, there's nothing like plain old chicken. The average 3-ounce serving of chicken nuggets has five times as much fat as 3 ounces of roasted chicken breast without the skin, and about twice as much fat as the same size portion of breast roasted with the skin.

Laying the Golden Nuggets

Yes, they're all different, but some come from the same coops. For example, Tyson makes nuggets, to different specifications, for Wendy's and also for Burger King. Likewise, Weaver makes nuggets for Weaver and also for Kentucky Fried Chicken. And Con Agra, which owns Banquet, makes its own nuggets as well as some for Burger King.

Wait! There's More

The "whole nugget concept is very much on our minds," said Hanley of Con Agra.

Stay tuned. Weaver's Kauffman said that from November to the end of the Super Bowl, the consumption of frozen poultry finger foods doubles.

Forgo the Fryer, Goodbye Grease, So Long Salt

If you're really hungering to join the nugget generation, but are turned off by fast foods, there's still a way.

HEALTHFUL HOMEMADE NUGGETS (Approximately 4 appetizer servings)

2 whole chicken breasts, cut into bite-sized pieces

1/2 cup olive oil

3 to 4 cloves garlic, minced

Generous grinding fresh pepper

1 cup fine bread crumbs for dredging

1/4 teaspoon cayenne or more to taste

Marinate chicken pieces in olive oil, garlic and pepper for approximately 30 minutes. Pour off marinade.

Mix bread crumbs with cayenne. Lightly dredge chicken strips in mixture; shake to remove excess.

Spread in a single layer on a cookie sheet and bake at 475 degrees for 12 to 15 minutes, turning once. Run under broiler for extra browning, if desired.

Serve warm with a dip of honey-mustard, barbecue or sweet-and-sour sauce.

Nugget NuggetsBest tasting: Popeyes Worst: Swanson Smallest: Banquet Biggest: Weaver, Giant, Swanson Priciest: Popeyes Least expensive: Banquet Highest calorie: Wendy's Lowest calorie: Perdue Saltiest: Kentucky Fried Chicken Least salty: Perdue With added skin: Bojangles, Wendy's, McDonald's, Roy Rogers Beef tallow used for frying: Wendy's, Bojangles, Roy Rogers No MSG: Weaver, Banquet, Church's, Perdue, Swanson