The snack that embodies midcentury America

The story of Chinese chicken fingers

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This is a story about boring things and spectacular things and old things and new things and American things and Chinese things and Polynesian things and how a single food can be all those things—or at least understood as all that—at once.

It starts with reader mail, by which I mean my Twitter replies, because it's 2021. The other day, I asked for snack post suggestions and Ranjan Roy offered this:

The link Roy posted goes to an essay he wrote last year (for his own newsletter, Margins) about Chinese chicken fingers, a staple of his youth in Lexington, Massachusetts. It’s a lovely, thoughtful piece that’s largely about immigration and how “this intersection of assimilation and innovation is the beauty of America,” as seen through his own family’s story and that of Chinese-Americans like the legendary Boston chef Joyce Chen. It’s also an appreciation of Chinese chicken fingers as a dish unto themselves.

Here’s the basic recipe: take a strip of chicken, coat it in batter, deep-fry it. It has a thicker layer of breading than your standard fried chicken, but therein lies the joy, the crispy-yet-pillowy texture providing an ideal counterpoint to the tender meat. Serve with an orange “duck sauce” on the side. Dip, bite, savor. It’s the sort of thing that lots of people would enjoy, if only they knew about it—but many people don’t know about them at all because, as Roy notes, they’re common in Massachusetts and a few other pockets of New England but essentially nowhere else.

Until that tweet, I was among the many who had never even heard of Chinese chicken fingers. Once I began digging, though, they were all I could think about.


* * *

I started by searching various news databases for “Chinese chicken fingers” as an entire unified phrase, to avoid the ten million results about all the other chicken fingers (about which more in a moment). I found mentions of the dish in ads from Hackensack, New Jersey, in 1992 and the Boston area throughout the 1980s, and a couple of Boston Globe food column discussions of recipes from local restaurants, the earliest of which was published in 1978, which presumably means they’d been on menus, under that name, for at least a few years.

None of this, though, pointed to an origin. Stumped, I tried changing things up a bit and separated my queries into two search terms: “Chinese” and “chicken fingers.” This led to several earlier mentions, all of which included “chicken fingers” in a longer list of the items on the menu at Boston-area Chinese restaurants.

One, from 1973, called them “most unusual”; another, from 1974, called them one of “the standard tidbits” Bostonians love. Both of them—and all the other mentions of chicken fingers in Chinese restaurants of this era—singled out the food as one component of a larger dish: the pupu platter, that appetizer menu mainstay of tiki bars and their various Polynesian-themed siblings that spread across the USA in the middle of the last century.

* * *

If this were a podcast, I would now say, in my best slightly-gravelly baritone, “To understand this, we need to take a step back—way back, more than a century in the past.” 

There are two pieces to consider: American interest in all things Polynesian and Chinese immigration to the USA, the stories of which eventually start to overlap in the form of the tiki bar.

The superficial, tourist-gaze trappings of Polynesia—meals involving, say, flame-cooked fish and copious amounts of pineapple; hula-esque dancing; ukulele music; palm-shaded beaches as backdrops for novels and movies—have inspired multiple waves of trends in American culture since the late 1880s. It started with Paul Gauguin paintings and books like Treasure Island and took off after the American annexation of Hawaii in 1898, an act of colonization that came after U.S. interests violently overthrew Queen Lili‘uokalani in 1893. Across the USA, these islands and their culture became subjects of much exoticized curiosity, with actual Hawaiians and their lives reduced to racist caricatures both violent and ostensibly romantic. (The same was true for the people of the other islands the USA took over, by various means, in the same era—the Philippines, Guam, American Samoa, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands—but Hawaii has always been especially prominent in the American cultural imagination.)

As Sven A. Kirsten documents in his excellent book Tiki Pop, in the 1910s, Hawaiian-influenced/appropriated music had a moment of popularity in the states, and soon came movies like Hurricane (1935) and Mutiny on the Bounty (1937), both of which led directly to the creation of some the earliest Polynesian-themed bars and restaurants in the USA, including one using parts of the Mutiny on the Bounty set. But they weren’t just following Hollywood: they were also looking to the precedent set by the very first American tiki bar, Don’s Beachcomber Café, which opened in 1933 in Hollywood.

After World War II—which further raised American awareness and stereotypes of the Pacific Islands—the Polynesian trend took full flight, with tiki motels and tiki bowling alleys and, all around the contiguous 48 states, over-the-top tiki bars, with their bamboo-and-stuffed-parrots décor and rum-fueled drinks served in ceramic mugs shaped like skulls, pineapples, or scowling, cartoonish versions of the carvings of demigods found across Polynesian islands. (All of this, incidentally, is discussed at greater length in my own book on the U.S. territories/colonies, The Not-Quite States of America, which I’m paraphrasing here.)  

Within the same broad era—late 1800s to early 1900s—and as Roy discusses in his essay, the United States banned Chinese immigration, via the extremely racist Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, and anti-Chinese xenophobia was commonplace around the USA, often growing violent. In the 1880s, “As white … anxiety grew, it was unleashed in the form of shootings, arson, mutilation, and lynchings,” Jennifer 8. Lee writes in The Fortune Cookie Chronicles. Chinese immigrants already in the USA “were driven from agriculture, mining, and manufacturing” and “employers were afraid to give them jobs for fear of violent retribution.” So many of them struck out on their own, including setting up their own restaurants. From 1870 to 1920, Lee says, “the number of Chinese restaurant workers surged from 164 to 11,438, even though the total number of Chinese employed declined. … Cleaning and cooking were both women’s work. They were not threatening to white laborers.”

To white Americans of the early twentieth century, Chinese food and Polynesian décor offered the same basic appeal: “fun,” intriguing escapism via a nebulous, Orientalist vibe they could sample piecemeal like any other trend. Don’s Beachcomber Café and the other restaurants and bars that followed in its sandy footsteps offered all that, but amped up, in what Kirsten calls “synthetic exoticism,” themed environments that presaged the likes of Disneyland and Rainforest Café.

Garrett Snyder, writing in Punch in 2017, points to all these factors, at that midcentury moment, as the origin of the USA’s Chinese-Polynesian culinary crossovers. The owners of Don’s Beachcomber Café, Snyder says, realized that “serving Cantonese food, tweaked with just enough Polynesian flair (read: pineapple) to label as their own, would be exotic enough to entice, but not intimidate.”

As other entrepreneurs followed this template, Cantonese food became an intrinsic part of the American tiki bar—and Chinese restaurant owners, seeing the same successes, started adding tiki drinks to their own menus.

* * *

By the 1960s, the two variations on a theme restaurant had merged, in many instances, with some places advertising themselves as both Chinese and Polynesian (NB: China and Polynesia are not remotely close to each other). In Boston, Bob Lee’s Chinese restaurant became Bob Lee’s Islander in 1960, and within a few years, others that had landed on this cultural hybrid format included the Lotus Restaurant, in Burlington, Vermont; China Happy Blossom Restaurant in Jackson, Mississippi; and Golden Palace in San Antonio.

One common factor in all of those menus: the pupu platter, a large plate of smallish appetizer foods that often included things like eggrolls, spare ribs, and chicken wings. Some sources say it originated at Don’s, in 1934, others date it to 1950 (it was almost certainly not invented by Bob Lee’s Islander, despite what it says in that ad included earlier in this post); in any case, it was a showcase of savory, snackable things that were Chinese-influenced but adapted for an American audience. And it’s in these menu listings, in the 1970s, that we start to see chicken fingers, presumably as a variation on eggrolls or wontons—a meat pie of sorts, both “exotic” and familiar and unquestionably delicious.

(Quick sidebar: it’s important to understand such Americanizations in context, not as inauthentic or inferior—to do so is to diminish or dismiss the lived experiences of the chefs making them. All food culture is evolving, adapting, malleable, and the stories behind it are rarely straightforward, a combination of external forces requiring assimilation but also the agency of people wanting to cater to a new audience or just try something different. See also chicken tikka masala, Kansas City tacos, chicken parm, etc.)

* * *

We’re still on the path of Chinese chicken fingers, though, served at distinctly Chinese restaurants, and we’re not quite there yet.

In fact, we need to make another stop. Because while I was searching for this particular dish, I also—as mentioned—kept finding other discussions of chicken fingers, the kind that’s essentially just a strip of fried chicken. You know what I’m talking about. So basic yet so delicious, as Helen Rosner discussed a few years back in her Beard-Award-winning essay “On Chicken Tenders.” (“Chicken tenders aren’t cool. They’re not retro. They’re not funny,” she writes. “They ask nothing of you, and they don’t say anything about you. They are two things, and two things only: perfect, and delicious.”)

And while you can find versions of fried chicken strips as far back as 1938—the date of a recipe I found in The Age newspaper in Melbourne, where it was offered as alternative to the main recipe, chicken in aspic—they don’t seem to have taken off as a large-scale cultural phenomenon until the 1970s. A Savannah restaurant called Spanky’s claims to have invented chicken fingers in 1976, although that’s undercut by the food’s simultaneous appearance in Great Britain, as evidenced by their mention, in 1977, in The British Record (“A review of British affairs, issued by British Information Services, an agency of the British government”): “Latest British delicacy, rivalling fish and chips in popularity now that cod is scarce, is ‘chicken fingers,’ made of chopped and breaded chicken, deep-fried.”

The first chain of American restaurants to focus on chicken fingers was Guthrie’s, which opened in 1978 (and which would later inspire Raising Cane’s, which debuted in 1996). By that time, though, they were becoming common on independent restaurant menus around the USA. In 1978, for example, on the same page of the Hazleton, Pennsylvania newspaper, I found chicken fingers getting prominent mention in ads for a Chinese restaurant, where they were part of the pupu platter, and also a red-sauce Italian spot, an American comfort food eatery, and a low-key place called The Ugly Mug (these last three, I’m assuming, sold the other, more basic version of the product). Chicken fingers, in the form so widely availably today, from fast-food joints to snack bars to giant bags sold in the grocery store freezers, had officially begun to have their cultural moment.

Again, though, all that started in the 1970s, which means those aren’t the original chicken fingers. The actual original chicken fingers—the first widely popular dish with that name—were the thicker, breaded version developed for pupu platters in Chinese-Polynesian restaurants more than a decade earlier.

* * *

By the mid-1980s, tiki’s cultural moment had started to fade (though it didn’t take long for the nostalgia to set in). In Punch, Snyder examines this long decline but also mentions some places where variations have held on:

Nowhere was this Sino-Polynesian alliance more impervious to change than areas like suburban Massachusetts—and the greater Northeast in general—which isn’t surprising given the affection Boston still holds for lovably bastardized dishes like Peking Ravioli and American Chop Suey.

Which brings us back to the question that started this whole long journey: Where did Chinese chicken fingers originate, and when? I don’t know for sure, but here’s my best guess, based on everything I’ve learned.

My hunch is that Chinese chicken fingers were simply a rebranding of the chicken fingers on the pupu platters of the Chinese-Polynesian restaurants. Tiki was starting to dwindle as a trend at the same time that chicken fingers—the new kind—were coming into fashion, and it stands to reason that restaurants would want to keep them on the menu even after the rum punches and theme-park interiors went away.

Calling them Chinese chicken fingers may have also been a reclaiming of sorts, a way to make this Chinese-American food its own distinct thing, with a clearer acknowledgment of the cooks who created it in the first place. Why they’re such a Boston thing, specifically, I’m not sure—it may have to do with Joyce Chen, who created Peking Ravioli and introduced many Bostonians to Chinese food through her restaurants and television show, and who embraced the “intersection of assimilation and innovation” that Roy lauds in his essay. Maybe it was someone else, or some other factor. It’s not clear.

But the good news is this: While Chinese chicken fingers may be a New England specialty, you can still find the exact same food now under the name “golden [or gold] chicken” in restaurants beyond the range of Red Sox fandom. If you’re hungry, well, you should probably go order some now.

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Happy snacking!