Article Thumbnail

Land Before Noms: How Dinosaur-Shaped Chicken Nuggets Came to Walk the Earth

When exactly did the school lunch lady get prehistoric?

It was the first week of school in September 1993. As seven-year-old me entered the cafeteria, I made a point to show off my crisp new Jurassic Park T-shirt depicting the iconic T-Rex breakout scene from the summer’s coolest movie. I then fetched a tray and got in line for the day’s hot lunch, grabbing myself what passed as a nutritious meal in the early 1990s — a chocolate milk, some broccoli (which I’d throw away in about a minute), a small piece of cake and some chicken nuggets. But when I got to the nuggets, I stopped dead in my tracks. Absent were the circular, nondescript shapes I’d known for my entire existence and in their place was a Stegosaurus, a Triceratops and even the mighty Tyrannosaurus Rex!

Okay, I don’t actually remember the first time I encountered dinosaur chicken nuggets in the wild, but it’s safe to say that it went down something like that. In June 1993, Jurassic Park had come out, and by September, every kid in the world was an amateur paleontologist. So dinosaur nuggets — which debuted in schools, grocery stores and, most appropriately, at New York’s Museum of Natural History that year as well — would have been a big deal.

Truth is, I don’t remember a time before I had dinosaur chicken nuggets in my life. They were a ubiquitous part of my childhood, and as I’ve grown older and become a parent myself, I’ve always had nostalgia for those saurian-shaped bits of processed chicken. I’m far from the only one either. As Mark Tolbert, who works in Perdue Chicken’s Innovation Center, tells me, “As kids, we all played with or watched cartoons with dinosaurs. Then they started making adult movies with dinosaurs. So dinosaurs are a symbol that carry over from childhood to adulthood.” Music teacher and children’s entertainer Randy Sauer says much the same, which is why he dedicated a kids’ song to dinosaur chicken nuggets that’s proven to be one of the most popular songs in his repertoire (this song has been stuck in my head for four days).

And while dinosaur nuggets didn’t necessarily inspire a generation to pursue paleontology, their alleged inspiration — Jurassic Park — certainly did. “The public interest in dinosaurs has always been high, but the release of the original Jurassic Park took that to the next level,” paleontologist David Evans explains. “This not only translated into more dinosaurs in pop culture, but over the last two decades, the intense interest has also resulted in a major increase in academic paleontologists, the number of professional positions and a huge bonanza of dinosaur discoveries. This ‘Golden Age’ of dinosaur science is owed in large part to Jurassic Park.”

But what if I told you that despite this monumental impact on science, movies and myself, Jurassic Park was not the reason we have dinosaur nuggets? Nope, a search through the U.S. government’s patent and trademark office reveals that Perdue Chicken submitted a trademark for a Tyrannosaur-shaped nugget on February 7, 1991, more than two years before Jurassic Park hit theaters. Did some prescient Perdue employee foresee the oncoming dinosaur boom?

It’s safe to say they probably did, as buzz for Jurassic Park dated all the way back to 1990, when Universal acquired the film rights to Michael Crichton’s original novel before it even came out. The early 1990s also were a time when Perdue began experimenting with different-shaped chicken nuggets, like star-shaped nuggets and nuggets shaped like footballs. And so, dinosaur nuggets probably seemed like a no-brainer. 

Given the trademark and the fact that there’s no record of dino nuggets predating 1991, this means that Perdue most likely invented dinosaur nuggets. I can’t, however, be 100 percent sure. The trademark says that it was abandoned in 1993, but a trademark lawyer I spoke to told me that there are a lot of reasons a company might do that. The official word I got from Perdue was much the same. “We believe that we did invent them,” Tolbert tells me, but he couldn’t conclusively prove it either.

So, Perdue almost definitely invented dinosaur nuggets and Jurassic Park undoubtedly popularized them, which, in my mind, leaves only one obvious question left to ask: What would real nuggets made from dinosaurs taste like?

“The first thing to consider is: Do chicken nuggets taste much like chicken?” says Dr. Thomas Holtz, a paleontologist who once looked into the query of whether or not dinosaurs would be kosher (they wouldn’t be). “In general they probably taste more like the crispy coating than, for instance, a piece of roast chicken. The same would be true for dinosaur meat.”

So real dinosaur nuggets would probably taste about the same as the chicken nuggets we have today, though Holtz adds that if you don’t bread dinosaur meat, its taste would likely depend on the dinosaur’s diet. “Most birds we eat are omnivores to some degree and, presumably, the meat of omnivorous dinosaurs would be in this general ballpark of flavor,” he explains. “The strict plant-eaters might taste something closer to typical red meat, while the strict meat-eaters would likely be gamey.”

Holtz is also sure to point out that chicken meat is dinosaur meat, as birds are, of course, descended from dinosaurs. “All living birds are all dinosaurs,” Holtz says. 

Maybe chicken nuggets have been dinosaur nuggets all along then.