To Set the Scene.
I can pinpoint the exact moment in time my taste-buds put their foot down.
The sports-bar was packed with customers — they filled every single booth and table as if to redefine the term ‘standing-room-only.’ Only a seminal event could’ve filled a city sports bar to capacity and cause people to stand idly as tables overflowed and servers weaved around them in vain: March Madness had arrived with a vengeance. Not only did March Madness demand your servitude, it demanded your liver’s sanctity as well. Win or lose, the clientele — already zealous in their fervor for the local team — drank as if the bar contained the last few beers on Earth; (if you’ve vaguely stumbled into the Midwest, you’ll find this is not uncommon. Granted, the same sentence can probably be applied to any region in the United States — and the world for that matter).
Now some may already scoff at the sporting event not being a World Cup match, an NFL event, or even a MLB World Series playoff game. However, if you visit certain Midwestern States — or those on the Atlantic Coast — during the end of the NCAA Basketball regular season, you are liable to find fans of all ages and backgrounds huddled around multiple TV’s; not only are they watching their team but they’re watching other teams playing at the same time as well. The NCAA Basketball postseason is a massive tournament containing dozens of teams. For each game that is played, two teams enter and one team leaves until a final champion is decided. It is a make-or-break situation for the universities, the players, the coaches, and the fans.
Where this gathering took place — as well as the basketball teams involved — is irrelevant. The worst chicken tenders in the history of mankind were the real culprits in the matter.
My father and I were both present, cheering each basket made and booing the refs whenever they called a foul against our team. Wanting something to nibble on to distract myself from the almost-tied halftime score, I ordered a small plate of chicken tenders — my favorite dish anywhere for as long as I can remember. Fifteen minutes later, the waiter brought them out hot-and-fresh. I said thank you and then regarded what I saw in front of me.
And what I saw was an abomination.
The One Batter You Meet in Hell.
I mean, I think it was a chicken tender?
It was a strange cornmeal-themed batter; traditional cornmeal with flour but still very thin. Wispy even. No pepper, paprika, lemon-juice or anything else that might make it salvageable in terms of flavor. Barely salted, if at all. For a few seconds, I’d forgotten the game completely — even as the second-half raged onward — and simply stared at the monstrosity before me. I felt bad for the chicken encased in the experiment; what had it done to deserve this fate?
Maybe the meat was succulent?
Flavorless meat greeted me when I bit into it. The batter dissolved into little chunks which then became crunchy. The meat was so soft it started dissolving along with the fried exterior. A formless, tasteless mush emerged in about five seconds. When I swallowed, the aftertaste was horrific.
I tried thinking of my previous bad-experience with chicken tenders and could only remember the time when I went over to a friend’s house in elementary school and his mom popped frozen-tenders in the oven for us to eat. They’d been flavorless and chewy enough that I only ate half of one. When she asked if I enjoyed them, I didn’t want her to feel bad; I told her they were fine.
A chicken-tender snob never forgets.
Is this the worst chicken tender I’ve ever had?
A million taste-buds carrying pitchforks and torches rallied against the gates of my brain, shouting in unison: ‘Relinquish this assault at once! You will pay dearly for these transgressions you have bestowed upon us!’
I obeyed and turned back to the game, moving the plate forward to signify distaste.
And for once in my life — as much as I wanted to be distracted by college-basketball — I started thinking about how much better the tenders could’ve been.
If this is where I draw the line, where does the line begin and end?
Forgive Me Cluck Rogers, for I Have Sinned.
If you are fan of cornmeal-batter, I will go ahead and admit upfront that I think it is a weak and lazy batter. You can spice it up with paprika, cumin, lemon-juice, pepper, salt, even rosemary if you’re ambitious but there’s far more creative — and flavorful ways to go. Although the cornmeal-batter allows the eater to focus on the meat, if the meat has no flavor, you’re 0 for 2, as they would say in basketball free-throw-terminology.
So after thinking about it — and tasting chicken-tenders in all manner of establishments high-and-low — I have come to the conclusion that there is indeed a chicken-tender hierarchy and it goes something like this:
5. Cornmeal Batter: The type of stuff you see on flounder or fish that made its way over to chicken. Some may try and mix theirs up with Cajun spices or peppercorn. Lemon juice is invariably used. Each time I’ve eaten this, the skin always dissolves into a flat mush which then overrides the rest of the meat. Sometimes tiny crunches form in the batter which can hurt your teeth. I’ve never met a cook who lives-and-dies by cornmeal; even if the meat is tender and flavorful, the breading is a distraction large enough to stop the show.
4. Tempura Batter: You see this style in a lot of Asian-American-cuisine restaurants. Typically may go with sweet and sour sauce. This is made with cold water, starch, egg, and different spices depending on any extra flavor you want. The main reason I don’t have this lower is how easily most tempura batter dissolves — you can focus on the meat entirely. Even if the meat is average, the batter has a flavor resembling buttery eggs or a crispy dumpling. It’s there if you want it but it doesn’t do much on its own.
3. Traditional Egg and Flour Recipe — a million variations exist in all manner of fast-food and sit-in restaurants across the world. Also exists in the frozen food section. You will see pepper, salt, other herbs and spices, along with the egg and flour that will give it a richness not only in flavor but in texture. This is when things start getting crispy and you’ve got to work at the tender a little bit before it crumbles. Although quality meat is preferred — even if the meat is not stellar you almost get a meal out of the batter alone.
2. Buttermilk Marinade Traditional — You take the above recipe but the buttermilk makes it crispier… weightier even. This is when things start getting interesting. Professional chefs and recipe-gurus start throwing weird spices that don’t normally go in chicken tenders; (chili power may make a guest appearance if you’re truly daring. With the skin getting crispier and more flavorful — adding a richness the previous three don’t have — quality-prepared meat can make this an outstanding meal. If you want a safe bet, garlic flavoring goes pretty good with them.
1. Beer Battered — Yes, this usually involves flour and egg but it also involves the biting vigor of alcoholic drink. If used correctly, the alcohol will melt off, leaving only the flavor — and what a flavor it is! You can experiment and use everything from a light-beer for an extra zing to deep lager’s offering the finest in chicken-tender-experiences. Mix and match with pepper, salt, and your choice of herbs for desired zest and you have by far-and-away the clear winner for the ultimate flavor champion.
Five flavors enter. One flavor leaves.
Is There Anything Else You Wish to Confess?
“What’s the matter? You don’t like them?” a voice said from afar.
Late into the second half — only nine minutes remaining in the game — my father pointed out the unfinished basket of tenders. I shook my head and handed him the basket. “Here, you can have them, they’re awful.”
“Really? They don’t look that bad.”
He took one and started eating. I turned back to the game, waiting for his verdict.
“I don’t know,” he said. “They taste pretty good to me. It’s just a chicken tender.”
I shook my head, defeated. He would never understand. Once you’ve have more types of chicken tenders than you could possibly count, certain types won out over others. Especially if the batter was poorly done…as it was here.
“You’re not serious…” I responded. For a second, the game didn’t seem to matter.
“Your standards are too high,” he said. “It’s just a chicken tender.”
The game wound down to the final minutes and there is one more thing I want to confess: I mentioned earlier that the basketball team we rooted for — and the city where this even took place — were both irrelevant. While I remained truthful on that front, I omitted one vital piece of information:
The team won. In a dramatic come-from-behind victory, the local team would go onward to face the next game in the tournament. As the drunk and happy fans filed out of the bar — leaving a great mess in their wake — I kept trying to get the taste of bad cornmeal out of my mouth. Driving home, I still thought about the platter of…whatever it was…put in front of me. I wondered how a sports bar would manage to stay open if the food was that poor — regardless how many good deals on drinks they offered.
The sports bar closed around a month later.
It probably wasn’t just the chicken tenders…
…but I’m going to go ahead and say it was.
 ‘Two man enter. One man leaves.’ Is what is mentioned to Mad Max as he entered the Thunderdome for gladiatorial combat in a post-apocalyptic world. (Thankfully, I haven’t seen any basketball games where players have fought to the death). Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome (1985).