Photo by Robyn Lee, Flickr

A true connoisseur of the chicken tender knows that there are three immutable rules.

The first is the rule of physical integrity. A tender has a proper shape: flattish, oblong, and gradually tapering from a wide front to a narrow end. Unlike nuggets, which are largely made from processed, re-formed scraps, the chicken tender takes its name from an actual piece of the chicken: the pectoralis minor, a muscle located under the breast, against the sternum. The tenderloin. It’s rare nowadays to get actual tenders when you order them (hence the rise of “fingers” and “strips,” terms of art that veil all manner of creative butchery), but integrity demands that a wedge of breast put at least some effort into mimicking the actual part of the chicken it is trying to be.

The second rule of chicken tenders is that, contra any advice your mother may have given you, what’s on the outside matters infinitely more than anything on the inside. A chicken tender lives or dies by its exterior: batters, breadings, the disappointing faux-sophistication of panko. The subtlety or intensity of its spice and salt. The crispness of the exterior is what creates the tenderness of the interior, its structural cohesion when submerged in hot oil helps the chicken inside stay juicy and good. But it can’t adhere only to itself: a good chicken tender’s breading stays connected to the chicken inside once you take a bite, not slipping off like a silk stocking or the bullshit batter on an onion ring.

The third rule of chicken tenders is that sauce is a last resort. You shouldn’t have to dip your chicken tenders in anything. If you want a vehicle for ranch dressing, order the crudités.

Helen Rosner writing in Guernica about her deep love for chicken tenders.

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