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Which came first, chicken or nugget?

Chickens have five natural segments: breast, back, leg, thigh and wing. Then there is the nugget. They're everywhere _ in fast-food restaurants, real sit-down restaurants, school lunchrooms and supermarkets.

Everywhere, that is, except on a real chicken, and that's where McDonald's comes in.

By all accounts McDonald's invented the chicken nugget along about 1980. The Colonel had been selling chicken for a generation before that, but nothing resembling chicken nuggets, chicken morsels, chicken tenders, chicken chunks, chicken strips, chicken fingers, chicken toes or chicken anything else. (From here on we will use the term "nugget" for these things in all their forms.)

Nuggets are the fast-food success story of the late 20th century. Nearly every restaurant on the planet has them, not counting chichi joints whose names begin with "le," "la," "chateau" or have snooty waiters with fake or real foreign accents.

Kids and adults alike love them. They might just be the perfect traveling food. (In reference to nuggets, we also will use the term "food" in a generic sense.)

Which brings us to the burning questions: Where did they come from? Who invented them and why? Whose taste the best, and which are the best for you?

Purposefully we will avoid broaching the question: What part of the chicken exactly is the nugget and how do the chickens feel about losing them?

Richard Lobb, a spokesman for the International Broiler Council, said about 1-billion pounds of nuggets will be produced and sold this year in the United States. Most will be eaten by children younger than 12.

There is no firm definition for "nugget" or any nuggetlike product. "Nuggets can be what we call chopped and chunked (re-formed), or it can be whole chicken meat," Lobb said. "Exactly what is in the end product would be determined by the marketer and the processor."

The U.S. Department of Agriculture does set limits on the amount of breading and chicken skin in a nugget, he said. No more than 30 percent of each nugget can be breading.

"Each also can have no more than natural proportions of skin," he said. "You can't have more skin than you would find on a comparable piece of whole chicken."

Lisa Howard, the Mc-media manager for McDonald's, said nuggets didn't start out as chicken but rather as onions. She said founder Ray Kroc originally had called upon European chef Rene Arend to develop onion nuggets as an alternative to onion rings.

"That was the idea," said Howard, "but because of the variety in onion supplies it became difficult to control quality."

Remember that the first and most important commandment of fast food is consistency. Bland and tasteless are acceptable as long they are consistent.

When onions didn't work, Kroc suggested chicken, and, voila! An industry was born.

They were test-marketed first in Knoxville, Tenn., and proved to be a great success. "They quickly became McDonald's hottest new product since the Egg McMuffin," Howard said. "McDonald's now is the second-largest purveyor of chicken in the food service industry."

KFC is No. 1. KFC unveiled chicken strips in September 1995 and sold 37-million of them in 1996.

McDonald's sales goes way beyond that. "In the U.S. annually we sell 234-million pounds of McNuggets," Howard said. "That amounts to 4.68-billion nuggets in a year."

It also amounts to about a pound for every man, woman and child in America.

The average McDonald's restaurant sells 1,600 pounds of them a week, Howard said. Sales are strong in Europe and Asia, she added, but sales figures were unavailable.

She said her foreign counterpart also could not or would not tell us if, for instance, the French call them poulet nuggays or if the Germans call them hahnchen menschen.

Whatever is in the nugget (and McDonald's won't say), the chicken pieces follow the same carefully guarded recipe the world over. Some countries in Europe and Asia also feature vegetable nuggets and fish nuggets.