Our nation is in crisis, and I'm not talking about the nuclear standoff with North Korea or even the staggering number of serial harassers hiding in plain sight in America.
I'm talking about a crisis unfolding in towns large and small across the country: After getting us hooked on its salty chicken strips, McDonald's is swiping the Buttermilk Crispy Tenders from our greasy little fingers! The ostensible reason for this betrayal is demand. A spokeswoman for McDonald's emailed me to say that "demand far surpassed our expectations. We will soon take a brief break from serving them at our restaurants."
The break is happening now, as tenders start to disappear from Mickey D menus across the land. I'm told that they will return by the end of December, right when most of us are dealing with the stress of post-holiday credit card debt and the prospect of facing an entire month without alcohol. They will return, in short, when we're most vulnerable to mindless caloric snacking.
If I were a conspiracy theorist, I'd say this was a Clown Scheme to create an artificially low supply, which will then spike demand, or at least a hearty appetite, allowing McDonald's to raise the price of its tenders without any underlying increase in costs. But a McDonald's representative says the price will remain the same when those tenders reappear by year's end.
You read it here first: The price will remain the same. Print this out and slam it on the counter should the reality in late December not match the PR spin! (On second thought, just hand the paper gently to the cashier and remind him that promises were made; we have enough false bravado in this country as it is.)
So what is a poor tender-addicted schlub to do for a month while the chicken strips are AWOL? It seems like the perfect time to try the competition over at Wendy's, which introduced a tender of its own in October. The chain, of course, earns a demerit for witless imitation, the fast-food equivalent of the kid who starts wearing camo pants because some model paraded a pair down a runway.
Regardless, the first is not always the best. So I drove to my nearest Wendy's and dug into a four-piece box of chicken tenders, which run about $4.20, give or take a few pennies. (Three pieces cost around $3.50.) The first thing I noticed was the box: It didn't have the cool little pop-out holders for sauce, like the one at McDonald's. Wendy's, the old scold, clearly doesn't want you playing with your food.
The second thing I noticed was the grease. There were pockets on these strips of breast meat (now with "rib meat"!) where oil had collected, turning a couple pieces into rubber chickens. The deep fryer at this particular location, I'd guess, has been working overtime, which in turn has lowered the oil temperature and prevented the tender's surface from crisping up as needed. One tender wasn't even cooked all the way through, its center still cool, almost cold.
This is why fast-food dining is a crapshoot: No matter how much R&D a chain like Wendy's puts into a new product, the company is always at the mercy of employees who are expected to take pride in their work, day in and day out, for hourly rates that don't amount to a living wage. (Those ready to deploy their proud teenage labor experiences - when they had Britney Spears posters on their bedroom wall under Mom and Dad's roof - can just jump to the comments section and get their rants out of the way.)
That said, the strips that had somehow emerged from the fryer without obvious slicks were decent enough: meaty, moist and crisp, with a pronounced sodium bite. They were even better when dipped in Wendy's S'Awesome sauce (I couldn't bring myself to say the name when I placed the order), which has a decided smokiness thanks to the "natural smoke flavors" listed among the ingredients.
On another day, with another fry cook, I'm sure I would have been a more ardent advocate for Wendy's tenders. But for now, I'm just waiting for the day that the Buttermilk Crispy Tenders return to McDonald's.