In Defense of the Chicken Finger

The CanWest newschain has declared war on chicken fingers. No, seriously. Click the link if you don't believe me. (But you shouldn't, not just because I've never lied to you but also because there's one of those obnoxious videos that auto-plays when you open the story)

Adam McDowell wants us to believe that the rise of the chicken finger is some nefarious plot to poison children -- or at the very least, that poisoning children is a ignored side effect of the nefarious plot to not let huge amounts of perfectly good chicken go to waste.
Chicken fingers, Allen says, were seldom seen before 1990 or so, but by the end of the 1980s, fear of saturated fats turned many North Americans away from beef and toward chicken. Increased demand meant billions of additional chicken breasts were processed — but what was the industry to do with the tenders? The answer is on children’s plates.

We can look at Allen’s mini-history of a mini-food as a metaphor for how cuisine has come to be divided in contemporary North America: The prime cuts go to the adults while the less healthy morsels — dressed up in extra salt, fat and sugar and processed almost beyond recognition — end up on the kids’ menu, both in the family restaurants that traffic in such fare, and at home.
Allen in this place is Gary Allen, a "food historian" who has been peddling this narrative that avoiding waste and fulfilling a market requirement is some sort of evil scheme that he wishes he could have gone back in time to stop. This is why Mad Men rots your brain, of course: it's a Hollywood interpretation of what business people act like, as defined by people who only interact with businessmen when they have a stupid idea (like a movie about a girl who fantasizes about beating people up because she doesn't think she's crazy).

But if Allen took this crazy concept up the long ladder, McDowell steampunked it into the stratosphere. There's nothing "less healthy" about a chicken tender than a chicken breast. Allen himself praises Jamie Oliver for his work getting healthy-cooked chicken fingers (finger and tender, if you didn't already pick up on it, are interchangeable terms) into school lunch menus. All that extra fat and sugar and processing occurs because kids like that kind of shit. Allen probably learned somewhere in his undergraduate studies into food history that food tastes change as we age, so that those Fruit Loops loaded with sugar that seemed to appetizing at age nine seem much less palatable at age twenty-nine. Feed Duck Confit to a Grade 7 student in a school lunch and watch the entire building burn down within the hour, but slide them a pizza pop and they are as happy as a pig in shit. McDowell seems to think its a new phenomenon of feeding kids stuff they like, it's been perhaps more of a gradual change over the last century than some inherent paradigm shift. This idea that we've been feeding kids healthy food for millennia and then since 1970 switched to feeding them processed garbage isn't even remotely true. We all ate shit for millennia. Nobody knew what healthy eating was in 1775. Scurvy was a thing. The plethora of treats available to the modern diet required the invention of the refrigerator: go back to where most copies of the National Post were sold and as recently as 1940 you had people who buried food in a pit in their backyard and hoped that the ice they tossed in there in February would be sufficient to keep it edible until the harvest.
For a generation, many North American parents have indulged children’s picky eating tendencies by sticking them in an endlessly repeating loop of chicken fingers, burgers, pizza, plain pasta, mac and cheese, and grilled cheese sandwiches. Anyone who has sat down for a meal with youngsters over the past 25 years will recognize this list of typical “kids’ foods."
Going back to the nonsense above about "prime cuts for adults, processed crap for the rest of us", half the menu items are for what is more commonly known as "pub food". Rather than being the ugly redheaded stepchild of the food family, these foods are just as "prime cuts" as any nice pork cutlet could be. We divorce ourselves, however temporarily, of adult contentions like "keeping our cholesterol low" or "not spending $18 on a hamburger" and just enjoy eating. You know, like kids do. Like we encourage kids to do. Like we (and kids) need kids to do.

McDowell has that all-too-common tendency of idealizing an occasional memory as the norm:
Mealtimes for children were quite different just a few decades ago. Over the past few months, I’ve spoken casually and in formal interviews with dozens of people about food and childhood. As a general rule, people who grew up in North America and are now over the age of 30 recall that when they were children, kids ate what the adults ate. Families usually dined together at the table. There might have been foods you didn’t like; depending on the rules of the house you might have been expected to try them or even finish them. Or you might have been free not to, as long as there weren’t too many foods you were refusing. Either way, it wouldn’t have occurred to you that an adult was going jump up from the table to prepare you something precisely to your liking. And if you didn’t eat, you might have to wait quite a while for the next opportunity: Studies show that North American kids snack more often and consume more calories than they did in the 1970s.
If you aren't careful there you might miss the segue into "snacking versus eating" that ignores something in these "dozens of interviews": kids eat what adults eat at the family sit-down dinners. However, adults only do this once or twice a day: when the kids are hungry they have a bowl of KD, or some mini pizzas. Kids, especially as they start getting into double-digit ages, want to eat all the time. This isn't "snacking" in the sense that McDowell wants to apply it: it's another meal. It's Merry and Pippin wanting a second breakfast. As food portions get bigger (as adults become busier) we start skipping meals because we no longer require them. Kids don't, so why wouldn't we specialize in their treats?
The busy house with a full freezer turns into something almost like a restaurant, and the kids get what they want, with the food industry playing an instrumental role in exploiting children’s preference for nutritionally dubious foods.
Can we play this game with Adam McDowell's industry too? The newspaper business plays an instrumental role in validating parents fears with hitpieces like "Death of the chicken finger", an intellectually dubious article that the Vancouver Province was more than willing to play along with.
For all these reasons, “I believe the children’s menu should be abolished — not by government intervention but by re-educating and making it culturally normal [for kids to eat adult food],” says Brian Tang, who runs a diverse-menued school-lunch catering company in Vancouver, Foodie Kids Inc., with his wife Michelle.
Hey look! Here's a capitalist trying to exploit the same fears as McDowell. Suddenly he's not nutritionally dubious or "willing to play along" with the hipster foodie revolution that decrees that kids should be joining in the "soy milk" fun when they'd rather have a grilled cheese sandwich.

For Christ's sake, he's telling us grilled cheese sandwiches weren't part of a kids' staple before 1970.

Of all the things that "death" needs to come to, people who try to feed you that line come long before people try to feed you chicken tenders. With plum sauce. And an amber lager.