This post originally appeared on March 25, 2019, in the inaugural edition of The Move, a newsletter for Eater’s editors to reveal their recommendations and pro dining tips — sometimes thoughtful, sometimes weird, but always someone’s go-to move. Subscribe now.
With several notable exceptions, airports are, by and large, culinary wastelands. Much like those $5 bottles of water hawked at their newsstands, airport food is stupidly expensive and, with few exceptions, extremely mediocre; most of the concepts with celebrity chef names attached to them are cash grabs, and with a captive audience, in-terminal restaurants simply don’t need to be very good to stay in business. Accordingly, as soon as I step foot onto airport property, my palate shrinks to resemble that of a 5-year-old: I would like an order of chicken nuggets and that will be all, please and thank you. My preferred specimens come from McDonald’s (God bless that crunchy, tempura-like crust), but I’ll also go for Wendy’s nuggets, which are breaded rather than battered but always juicier than I remember. But as long as they come frozen out of a bag and plunged straight into a deep-fryer, I’m good. The move is: If you find yourself stuck eating at an airport, chicken nuggets are your best bet.
Why does air travel transform me into such a finicky eater? Frankly, in-flight food poisoning changes a person. After a (suspicious, in retrospect) taco salad consumed at the culinary wasteland that is the Ontario (California, not Canada) airport, I spent the entirety of a three-hour flight home doubled over with my hand clamped firmly over my mouth; suffice it to say it was a formative experience in my eating career. Part of my reliance on the chicken nugget, then, is strategic: Now, the only food that passes my lips inside an airport has to be highly processed, to the point it couldn’t possibly harbor any funky bacterial growth.
But even if I didn’t harbor food-poisoning fears, only eating nuggets at the airport is a solid strategy. Helen Rosner posited in a Beard Award-winning essay that chicken tenders are the perfect food, writing, “There’s no narrative to chicken tenders, there’s no performance. That is the substance of their allure: If you’re ordering them, you don’t have to look at the menu.” The same applies to chicken nuggets. Airports are stressful even at the best of times, thanks to the snail-paced security lines, forced shoe removal, and invasive TSA pat-downs; defaulting to generic chicken nuggets requires zero consideration and offers a small refuge from the otherwise anxiety-laced process of navigating air travel. Most of us over the age of 12 probably indulge in chicken nuggets only very rarely, so eating them at the airport provides a specific sense of comfort (even if they don’t come flanked by a Hello Kitty toy), allowing us to return to a taste of our childhoods. It’s way too easy to drop $40 on an extremely mediocre and sad airport meal for one, but ordering that taste of nostalgia will rarely require you to fork over more than a $5 bill.
If you’re traveling somewhere far-flung, nuggets offer you one last taste of stereotypically American food in all its sanitized, deep-fried glory. And if you’re traveling somewhere not known for a robust food scene, a repast of nuggets sets the bar delightfully low for any meals to come. Additionally, while carrying hot food on an airplane can attract dagger-like stares from fellow passengers (too many smells in a recycled-air environment!), leftover nuggets are basically devoid of aroma, so they make a perfectly suitable in-flight snack. Safe travels, and enjoy your nuggets: Just be careful not to spill any dipping sauce on your seatmate, though I maintain that McDonald’s sweet-and-sour is worth the risk.
P.S. For more expert opinions about America’s best chicken nuggets, do consult Eater’s ultimate nugget rankings.
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