Every Thursday at the cafeteria of my small university was Chicken Finger Thursday. It was a sacred day. People would line up for minutes upon minutes—sometimes up to thirty—just to fill a plate with golden fried chicken digits. If you had a test that day you had spent the month stressing about, the fingers were your reward. If you had just gotten in a fight with your best friend, the fingers were waiting for you on Thursday afternoons. If you were just hungry and didn’t care what you ate, fingers were for you.
We all laughed at Chicken Finger Thursday in delight: it was like a joke the school was playing on us, something that we both laughed with and at as we literally piled plates high with the food item. We knew it was an extremely childish meal and too unhealthy to eat every day but we aspiring young adults with a modicum of maturity found it comforting, liberating even. The irony of the simple meal of just fingers felt like a reward. It was culinary autopilot.
And autopilot is not a bad thing: it means you are maintaining without actually doing any work. It frees up your brain from having to work or think or make a real choice. It’s going with something you unquestionably love. It’s easy and good and there was no negative to this autopilot choice outside of its not being available every day.
(Then again, if that Thursday, basically-week’s-end reward was available at all times, it wouldn’t be as special.)
I cannot remember the last time I had a chicken finger—also commonly referred to as “Chicken Tenders“—since college but I think about them a lot. They tease you on menus and you think, “Wow, I want like five fucking plates of those cock digits.” You don’t actually order them. You see a child walk by with a plate of them and you salivate but you turn to your adult salad or adult burger and you think fondly of those chicken memories.
Why is this the case? We need more chicken tenders. The food needs a gourmet revolution akin to artisanal burgers or the rise of “small plates.” There should be chicken finger restaurants where there is no kids menu, where the playing field of culinary maturity is leveled for goodness. I would eat there. A lot. Maybe even once a week. My arteries may suffer, yes, but I would indulge when I could.
I get this idea from a brilliant essay by Helen Rosner called On Chicken Tenders. The food writer waxes on about the important universality and deliciousness of this chicken food. It’s life’s culinary chorus, something we can all return to when we want a break from those long and sometimes tiring versus of eating. Chicken tenders are the ultimate comfort food.
Rosner’s essay is enlightening because it serves as a coming out for this “perfect” food. It’s something that is at the baseline of good food yet it can be toyed with and improved, slanted toward different cultures, ending in a new incarnation of a classic. This is owed to its familiarity, in taste and style. A “chicken tender is a chicken tender is a chicken tender,” she says. I couldn’t agree more.
Furthering this, Rosner explains a truth: chicken tenders are so beloved because they are always there for you. If you are in need, have a tender indeed.
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. A roast chicken has a certain dinner-party elegance to it, and you know at least the sketch of an origin story for your pizza or your taco—but a chicken tender is a chicken tender is a chicken tender. Some restaurants might try to gussy them up, gently carve each tender from the breast of a bird that lived a happy life and lovingly dust them in a custom spice blend, but a true chicken tender comes out of a five-hundred-count freezer bag. They come from nowhere in particular—when you eat them, you could be anywhere.
I would further Rosner’s argument, too. There should be entire restaurants dedicated to this dish. They need to be mastered and toyed with by culinary greats. They need not be precious nor stuffy. They shouldn’t be for kids or adults. They should be something that occasionally pops onto a menu, surprising you and being a unique incarnation of the classic: we need to elevate the chicken tender to the same status of the All American burger, hot dog, fry, potato chip, apple pie, etc. Again: chicken tenders are at the center of the comfort food chorus. Let them sing solo.
Maybe my school was onto something with Chicken Finger Thursdays. It was like beer that the school could serve, for free, to anyone of any age. They were always allowed on Thursdays. They were available for all. There was no excluding anyone from Chicken Finger Thursdays. (Unless you didn’t have a meal plan—but people bought meal plans specifically for Chicken Finger Thursdays.)
I want a world where this piece of salty, juicy heaven is omnipresent. I don’t want but need chicken tenders and I think it is time that we take our love of this food to the next level. We shouldn’t overkill our dedication to the delicacy, sure, but we should celebrate it more. We owe it to whatever kitchen tangle created the treat. Chicken tenders are pleasure and pleasure is chicken tenders. Dip the love into your mouth. Live in ecstasy.