This may not be the critical/nostalgic text on chicken tenders we need, but it’s the one we deserve.
Like a diatribe on the Happy Meal extracted from True Detective, it’s not hard to imagine some of Helen Rosner’s passages drawled by a latter-day Matthew McConaughey:
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.
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.
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.
I am not ashamed to say that I indulge in chicken tenders, though I disagree with Rosner’s dismissal of panko as a breading ingredient and her disdain for dipping sauces. At home, I dredge my chicken in a mix of flour and panko, and I serve them topped with freshly grated parmigiano reggiano and a dipping sauce of equal parts Huy Fong sriracha sauce and Heinz ketchup. I’ll often eat them with white rice but find their ideal complement in a scoop of Hawaiian mac salad or a homemade Cæsar salad. It’s all very fancy, to be sure.
My recipe aside, the essay itself is sublime. Much like a plate of chicken tenders, I personally find it pretty satisfying (fully aware that others don’t), but I’m never quite sure if it’s meant to be taken totally seriously. The tone of its prose and its publication in Guernica lend the dish a heretofore unknown gravity, though it’s not unearned: perhaps the most confounding assertion in the piece is that chicken tenders only reached ubiquity in the 1990s. The very idea of breaded-and-fried chicken tenderloins seems so elemental to my palette that it astounds me to think that Auguste Escoffier’s codification of mother sauces predates it by at least three generations.
At a wedding Christina and I attended last year, as we dined on what we now recognize as the standard “wedding meal” – a mixed green salad, a pretty-if-unsatisfying course of protein, and a buckshot-patterned buffet of desserts (ordered by stationery several months in advance) – one of the children at the next table was served a plate of chicken tenders with a pile of fries. Rosner knows exactly how we felt in that moment:
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.