First there was the egg, then the chicken (or was it the other way around?). Whichever it was, the chicken nugget — that crust-enveloped chunk of bird that’s become a staple of dinners served on high chairs and in fast-food clamshells across the land — definitely came after that. And now, like a rapper shortening his name, there’s just the nugget, the plant-based version of the familiar, dunkable finger food.
Vegetarian nuggets have been around for years, of course, but there’s a potential disrupter in the game: Tyson Foods, the world’s second-largest poultry processor, recently introduced a new chicken-less line called Raised & Rooted. The nuggets are made with pea protein, the coolest kid at the veggie party these days, and the company claims they’ve got both a “cravingly crispy batter” and a great taste.
The decision to dub such veggie-based products simply “nuggets” is an interesting one. “Nugget” is practically synonymous with chicken — and McDonald’s is the reason.
Allow me to drag you down an etymological rabbit hole for a moment, will you?
The term “chicken nugget” seems to have been in occasional use before the fast-food giant debuted its McNuggets in 1983, but it was hardly a household one. The phrase pops up here and there in the annals of chicken history: A 1967 promotion by the National Broiler Council (now the National Chicken Council) introduced a recipe for nuggets that called for boning breasts and cutting them into pieces to “roll in seasoned crumbs.” And a Mrs. Thomas Young of Searcy, Ark., won the 1971 National Chicken Cooking Contest with a concoction called “Dipper’s Nuggets.”
But the nugget turned juggernaut only after McDonald’s named its battered poultry product the McNugget. (The inventor of the snack that came to be known as the nugget, a Cornell professor named Robert Baker, actually called it a “Chicken Crispie” or a “chicken stick.”)
By 1986, America was full-throttle nuts for nugs. A Washington Post story about the craze was headlined “Nugget Mania” and described the chicken chunks as “the hot dog of the ’80s.”
And they’re still popular, with countless variations (dinosaur-shaped! air-fried! maple-waffle seasoned!) to be found in grocery freezer cases. Not that they are universally loved — along the way, they’ve taken more hits to their reputation than Lindsay Lohan. They’re often made a symbol of the obesity epidemic and America’s dysfunctional relationship with food. And urban legends about what’s actually inside that crust has prompted the National Chicken Council to post a defense of the product. (Anytime you have to remind people that “there is no pink slime” in your product, you know there’s a PR problem.)
Which brings us to the nugget’s latest chapter: the plant-based option. Now that Big Chicken is going meatless, we set out to try the new guy on the plant-based block. We tasted the new nuggets along with a few other veggie options for comparison — and for the poultri-vores among us, there also were Tyson’s classic, real chicken nuggets to remind us of the Platonic ideal.
So are Tyson’s newest nuggets up to scratch? In short, cluck no. Here’s what our panel had to say:
Raised & Rooted Nuggets
Alas, the hyped newbie was most of our testers’ least favorite — even at first sight. “He’s so pale,” lamented one.
Several pointed out a strange chemical flavor that had us canceling this wannabe bird. “Fake smoke? No, just no,” opined another. “Is something burning?” someone asked. And its consistency, which included a couple of nuggets with chunks inside them that popped out from the rest of the filling (“a nugget inside a nugget — whoa and ew”), was just as unpopular. “The ‘chicken’ looks like some kind of brain foam.”
But not everyone was a hater; the nugget did get one first-place rating from a taster who praised its “peppery breading” and “nice and crispy” character. Just be careful not the sleep on this one — even its fan didn’t enjoy the Raised & Rooted version when its temperature dropped: “It’s gnarly when it cools.”
Morningstar Farms Chik’n Nuggets
From the company that’s been making faux, soy-based meats for 40-plus years, this nugget didn’t elicit strong opinions from many of our tasters, who collectively gave this an “eh, pretty good.” Most found this to be a little softer than the real thing, but it was generally tepidly liked.
“Okay,” one taster summed up. “Would eat again,” said another.
Quorn Meatless Nugget
This was the breakout star of our tasting, the Beyoncé to Tyson’s Kelly Rowland. Which seemed unlikely, since the first ingredient in this product is something called “mycoprotein,” which is a more palatable moniker for “fungal protein.”
This nugget did turn out to be the fungi at the party, though, with tasters liking its pepper-flecked crust (“almost homemade”) and its “meat-like attack” on the palate. Some faulted the texture as “gummy,” but that’s actually pretty much the way a real chicken nugget goes down, as we were reminded by the original version we tasted (shown below). “Honestly, the interior texture is better than real chicken,” said one.
Alice Crites and Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.
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