Remember the Cafeteria Chicken Patty?

In defense of the best worst sandwich we ever ate in middle school.

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Chicken patty sandwich on white background
Photo: Tiger Images (Shutterstock)

Before there was ever a whisper of Chicken Sandwich Wars, before “premium chicken fillets” were in existence, one chicken sandwich reigned supreme: the school cafeteria chicken patty.

Baked to a faint crispness, an unnatural burnished amber hue with fine crumbs that fell off like grains of sand, these perfectly round pucks of chicken were rubbery, salty, dry, and for some reason, delicious. Yes, they were grayish on the inside with a hint of clear juice, made of the same generic formed white meat chicken-y byproduct as bouncy nuggets, but chicken patties were the It Girls of the middle school menu. They were often only half the size of the standard roll they were slapped on, floating in a sea of the shredded lettuce like an Easter egg among plastic grasses, accompanied by two packets of mayonnaise. The sandwich was perhaps the simplest thing our lunch ladies had to prepare.

The allure of the middle school chicken patty

The chicken patty was offered as an everyday backup option to whatever was on the rotating menu, a not-so-secret menu item before secret menus existed. And it was widely acknowledged as being the only acceptable lunch item to order, if you absolutely must be caught doing something so uncool with your lunch period as eating lunch.

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I will disclose that my experience is somewhat elevated above the national norm, though. I went to public school on Long Island, New York, so instead of enriched white bread rolls, all dry and mealy and strangely dissolvable, we had real Viennese-style hard kaiser rolls, the legends of New York bodegas for our famed BECs with SPK.

Our school went through so many of these rolls that they were always fresh, dusted with cornmeal on the bottom and swirled with that signature dough pattern on the hard crust. They were sturdy and perfect vehicles for any kind of sandwich satisfaction: The cool inner crumb was moist and slightly sweet in a doughy kind of way, and while it was light and airy, its strong gluten structure meant that there was always a chew—the mark of a good kaiser roll.

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But even with that redeeming excellence, the sum total of the chicken patty sandwich, while not bad, is objectively not good. So why is it also So. Damn. Good?

Chalk it up as I might to the undiscerning tastes of my youth, I can’t deny that even 20 years later, there’s a significant appeal to those chicken patties. It’s not nostalgia—I hated high school, and I hated middle school more. It’s certainly not flavor complexity nor any kind of artistry—it’s the simplest of shit plopped on bread. Yet I crave it so much, so hard sometimes that I’ve been known to gleefully recreate Chicken Patty Day for dinner.

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I’m not the only weirdo who gets a hankering for this mediocre yet satisfying Sysco-supplied staple. The first time I informed my ex-husband, a fancy white-collar executive with stereotypically expensive taste in scotch and cars, that I was recreating school chicken patties for dinner, he lit up. He had gone to a rival high school and had a vastly different experience than me, but man, he was into it.

The best part of having chicken patties as fully grown adults? The limitlessness of it. Now, I can have as many as I want in one sitting without worrying about how the one sad sandwich and carton of milk my free lunch program paid for would hold up over the hours. I can just make another. And another. And with this formula, so can you.

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How to recreate the perfect school cafeteria chicken patty sandwich

Getting the right brands for the components is super important. So is resisting the urge to dress anything up. In the New York metro area, any bodega and many bagel shops will sell you those ubiquitous perfect kaiser rolls. Giunta’s Meat Farms and specialty markets who distribute wholesalers Monreale Bread Company or Lakewood Bakery mean you’re getting the real deal; look for these rolls loose in bulk bins in the baked goods section. J.J. Cassone offers rolls available prepackaged in many Northeastern supermarkets in the deli section. Another option is Europa, whose crumb is drier in the middle, but still passable.

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Now that I live in Atlanta, I don’t have access to true kaiser rolls—one of the most painful trade-offs I made for a better climate and lower cost of living. Supermarkets here, including the South’s beloved Publix Bakery and Kroger, don’t make a moist kaiser. They’re light and dry and disintegrate too easily.

That means I’ve gotten into the soft bun version of school chicken patty sandwiches. For that true-blue school cafeteria feeling, there’s no need to splurge. Forget the fancy trendy buns like brioche, the once-darling but now-problematic potato bun, or sweet Hawaiian-style recipes. While springing for a nicer white bread roll like Nature’s Own Perfectly Crafted is fine, resist diving too deep into “premium” or “artisan”-style buns. This is the time for the Wonders of the world, the insubstantial (despite being called “hearty”) Pepperidge Farm line.We’ve set our sights on replication, not elevation!

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I’ve also tried every brand of chicken patty out there to determine which one tastes the most like memory. While Perdue’s refrigerated Breaded Chicken Breast Cutlets have the best balance of flavors and a more tender bite than the perfectly circular pucks of yore, those quality improvements lose some points for accuracy. Yet the frozen Perdue patties are more rubbery and fake-tasting than the ones we had in school. So if our aim is like-for-like, Tyson’s frozen Fully Cooked & Breaded Chicken Patties are the way to go. They’re just the right amount of pink-sludge fake beneath an extra-salty layer of breading that only the cool combination of Hellmann’s Real Mayonnaise and lots of Fresh Express Shreds Iceberg can counter.

With the sandwich perfected, my final recommendation is to pair it with Hardee’s fries, specifically. They have that certain cafeteria flavor to them—you know the one, as recognizable yet undefinable as the taste of cheeseburgers kept warm in aluminum bags. If you were in a school district that served crinkle-cut fries dubiously salted and always a little soggy, Shake Shack’s gotcha. And if you were real fancy and had the option of onion rings, as I did, no other brand comes close to Kroger’s Minced (not whole!) Breaded Onion Rings, crisped up in the air fryer. They’ve got less filler than Burger King’s and none of Sonic’s heavy-handedness with exterior breading.

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And there we have it, folks: the possibility of Chicken Patty Sandwich Day every day, once again. A simpler time, before pickles and special sauce and toasted, buttered brioche buns and premium fillets. And maybe, just maybe, there is still goodness to be found in that.