Behold, The Vegetarian Predecessor To The Famous Chicken McNugget

When you hear the word "McNugget," you automatically think of one place: McDonald's. Among the chain's many popular items like Big Macs, its thin and crispy fries, and its famed McFlurry, the golden, crispy, and juicy chicken McNuggets are a tempura-coated keystone of the average McDonald's menu. At first glance, the McNugget is simply that — a standard piece of white meat chicken fried up and served alongside little plastic tubs of dipping sauce. And there are more than a few reasons that this fast-food nugget has become so popular.

You may have noticed that your four-piece of nuggets almost always seems to come in four distinct shapes — a "bell," a "ball," a "boot," and a "bowtie." Reader's Digest explains that these "shapes" are from the production process, in which the chicken breast is "stamped" by a "cookie cutter" into one of these four shapes to ensure all resulting nuggets are the same width and size. If you hang out on internet chat forums long enough, you may hear the rumor that McDonald's actually uses a kind of chemical-soaked "pink slime" made from mechanically separated chicken as a cheap filler for their nuggets (via Snopes) — something McDonald's has vehemently denied on many occasions (via NBC News).

For as famous (or as infamous) as McNuggets are, they weren't a part of McDonald's original menu until somewhat later. Instead, something else existed to fill that "nugget-niche" McDonald's customers so craved — and it wasn't exactly chicken.

McDonald's had onion nuggets in the late 1970's

While you could go into any McDonald's in either 2023 or 1993 and get a box of McNuggets the same as you always do, the introduction of the chicken McNugget is a relatively new menu item compared to other menu items. If you were to go into a McDonald's in, say, 1978 and ask for a box of nuggets, you'd get something a bit different than the crispy chicken treats you're used to. 

According to Mental Floss, for a brief period between 1978 and 1979, McDonald's sold "Onion Nuggets," which were deep-fried, breaded chunks of onion. These Onion Nuggets seemed to be more or less a "test product" meant to attract the vegetarian crowd, with the nuggets being available in select locations across the United States. Although bite-sized, deep-fried onions may sound weird at first, especially if they're coming from McDonald's of all places, these nuggets weren't too far off from the usual onion rings you get at other restaurants. If other places could sell onion rings, McDonald's executives may have reasoned, why the heck can't we?

As ABC News reports, the Onion Nuggets simply didn't take off and were discontinued in 1979. It wasn't as if people found the Onion Nuggets bad (in fact, some have even petitioned for the nuggets to come back), but fried onions didn't seem to fit McDonald's style. Something else, then, would have to take its place.

McNuggets went nationwide in 1983

While Onion Nuggets weren't exactly the fit McDonald's was looking for, how do you go from serving up fried onions to bits of fried chicken? Certainly, McDonald's didn't invent the chicken nugget in a gamble to attract poultry-loving customers to its stores, but the company knew it needed to introduce more chicken products to its menu.

For this purpose, HISTORY tells us that McDonald's brought on a man by the name of Rene Arend. Arend's culinary career is an impressive one, even being noted for having cooked meals for English royalty, making him rather overqualified for the job. Arend's task was simple — develop a chicken product that could be sold similar to "French fries." Although Arend's first dishes (a boneless filet and a chicken pot pie), were well-received, they couldn't be mass-produced the same way fries or burgers could be. It wasn't until 1979 that Arend finally found the meaty masterpiece McDonald's was looking for: Chicken nuggets.

According to RTL Today, although Arend's "McNuggets" were both incredibly well-received and easy to manufacture, they couldn't be fully released nationwide due to a chicken supply shortage. The demand for McNuggets was apparently so great there wasn't enough chicken to go around. It was only in 1983 that McNuggets could be released across all stores, thus cementing them as a beloved part of McDonald's culture.

If inventing McNuggets wasn't enough, Arend is also credited with the development of another famous McDonald's item, the McRib, during the 1980s.