I beg my regular blog followers to forgive me for delving into such a light-battered topic. After writing an article on the origin of fried clams, a reader asked me if the Puritan Back Room restaurant of Manchester, NH invented chicken tenders. As you know I try to write truthfully, even if it my story dispels long-held myths dear to the hearts of New Hampshirites [or New Hampshiremen and women].
The item or product in question is described as thin strips of coated, fried chicken. The same item has been called by various names, including chicken tenders, chicken fingers, chicken strips, chicken tempura, and chicken nuggets (in the smaller rounded size). The problem with researching this topic is due to both semantics and preparation.
The Puritan Restaurant of Manchester, New Hampshire’s states in its web site history “Chicken tenders actually originated at the Puritan and to this day are still the most requested dish on the menu.” I wrote to them, and received a response from Chris Pappas, which is shown later in this story.
But before I can write about local chicken tenders I need to discuss a bit of chicken tender history. There are some who would like to give credit for chicken nuggets to one Robert Baker, who reportedly thought up “chicken sticks” in the 1950s but did not patent the recipe. (We are back to semantics–the recipe was for sticks not fingers or tenders). Still others credit Frank Purdue, whose slogan was “It takes a tough man to make a tender chicken.” However he did NOT say “It takes a tough man to make a chicken tender.” [and at any rate his company did not make “breaded tender shaped chicken” until sometime in the 1970s, the exact date unknown].
Wikipedia states: McDonald’s is often falsely credited with the invention of the chicken nugget. “In fact Baker published his chicken nugget recipe in the 1950s as un-patented academic work, while McDonald’s patented its recipe for Chicken McNuggets in 1979 and started selling the product in 1980.”
The earliest use that I could find of the term “chicken fingers” was in an 1893 newspaper. This particular foodstuff, however, was not fried at all. Instead it was a finger-sandwich that included strips of chicken.
The Weekly Economist, Elizabeth City, North Carolina, on 4 August 1893, page 4 published the following, that describes how to make a chicken finger sandwich: “Chicken Fingers–Cut thin slices from the breast of a cold roast chicken; cut each slice in narrow strips, dip in Mayonnaise sauce; arrange four strips on each slice of buttered bread; cover with top slices and cut in four narrow strips lengthwise; fold each slice in wax paper; pile on a napkin and serve.”–Courier Journal. Again this was more like a finger sandwich made of chicken.
This enigmatic advertisement appeared in The Morning Herald, Uniontown, Pennsylvania, 23 May 1941. “Chicken with the Fingers, 1/2 Fried Chicken, Served Unjoined, No Silverware, Plenty of Shoe-String Potatoes, Hot Buttered Rolls and Jelly, Coffee, 45c, Guthries Service, Route 40, West Beallsville, Pa.”
Chicken Finger Recipes (the sandwich variety) appeared in:
– June 13, 1942, page 7 The North Adams Transcript, North Adams MA
– June 17 1942, page 21, Harrisburg Telegraph, Harrisburg PA
– June 26, 1942, page 7 The Daily Telegram, Adrian Michigan
– June 30, 1942, page 8 The Kokomo Tribune, Kokomo, Indiana
18 two-inch finger rolls
4 tablespoons soft butter
1 cup diced chicken
1/2 cup diced celery
1 teaspoon chopped pimientos
1/8 teaspoon salt
5 tablespoons mayonnaise
Scoop centers from rolls and spread insides with butter. Mix chicken, celery, pimientos, and salt. Lightly mix in mayonnaise. Chill. Roughly fill the rolls, sprinkle with paprika and stick in cress or parsley.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s there is mention of chicken tempura frequently in newspapers. The original Japanese tempura was really a fish, not a chicken tempura, so I will assume that the addition of chicken was an American addition. We get into the murky water of semantics again. Is tempura the same as a tender?
On 9 May 1952, Arlington Heights Herald, Arlington Heights, Illinois, a salad recipe included “Sliced chicken–finger strips.” This is still sliced chicken fingers in a salad, not quite what we are looking for..
On 13 October 1961, page 6 of the Wellsville Daily Reporter, Wellsville NY announced that local poultrymen were planning a dinner meeting at the Presbyterian Parish House in Belmont NY. “A variety of new poultry products have been developed. Several including birddogs, chickalongna and chicken fingers will be available for sampling.” In all honesty, there is no further description, so I have no idea if this is the coated and fried variety.
Finally, after years of fakes and frauds, The 12 Feb 1966 issue of the Standard-Speaker (Hazelton PA) page 22, included a local restaurant ad (Mussari’s Sun Valley Restaurant, on the Drums-Hazelton-Willkes-Barre Highway) offering French Fried Chicken Fingers. [This is the first advertisement I find showing that the chicken was named a finger and was fried].
On December 19, 1982 “Fried Chicken Tenders” appeared on a menu of hors d’ouevres at the Sheraton-Aurora Inn in Aurora Ohio. By 1987 the Banquet brand of foods was selling “Fried Chicken Tenders” in 9 oz packages for $2.69.
By the early 1980s, the terms chicken fingers, chicken tenders, chicken nuggets, chicken strips, etc., all the fried variety, appear in many locations. So, to finally get back to the original question about whether chicken tenders originated at the Puritan Restaurant in Manchester, New Hampshire.
I received the following email from Chris Pappas of Manchester’s Puritan Restaurant on 31 September 2015 : “When the Puritan added the Backroom Restaurant in 1974, we had a portioned, boneless breast of chicken on the menu. As the breasts were trimmed down to size, we had chicken pieces that we didn’t know what to do with. The solution was to marinate and fry the pieces of chicken, and that was the origin of our chicken tenders in 1974. While not on our original menu, they were added by the end of the first year of operation. They have steadily become a mainstay of our business. The week before Christmas last year, we sold 12,000 pounds of them.”
This makes 1974 the approximate year of the appearance of chicken tenders in New Hampshire. At least from news paper clippings available to me, this would be the first of this type of fried chicken called “chicken tenders“ in New Hampshire, and everywhere else.
The answer to the original question of whether chicken tenders originated at the Puritan Restaurant depends on your terminology. Obviously by the evidence shown above, fried chicken strips were in existence and being advertised as “chicken fingers” at least 8 years earlier  than their existence in New Hampshire. Chicken nuggets were probably first “thought up” sometime in the 1950’s as “chicken sticks.” Based on my research through old newspapers, the creation and sales of a similar fried chicken product, called instead “chicken tenders,” may have occurred first at the Puritan Restaurant in 1974.
Editor’s Note: I invite my readers to submit primary evidence of “chicken tenders” being sold or advertised prior to 1974. “Tender chicken” and other styles of fried chicken strips do not count!
What better way to end my story, than with the following Video: Picky Eater Chicken Fingers
These famous chicken tenders are a bipartisan favorite in New Hampshire politics – Boston.com
The Political Buzz: These famous chicken tenders are a bipartisan favorite in New Hampshire politics.