March 16, 2006

Robert C. Baker, creator of chicken nuggets and Cornell chicken barbecue sauce, dies at 84

Robert C. Baker, the Cornell University poultry science and food science professor who helped develop chicken nuggets, turkey ham, and poultry hot dogs into ubiquitous American fare, and who created the famous Cornell chicken barbecue sauce, died of a heart attack at his home in Lansing, N.Y., near Ithaca, on March 13. He was 84.

Baker researched and developed innovative ways to use poultry. His Cornell chicken barbecue recipe has stood the taste test of time, having been showcased for more than five decades at his Baker's Chicken Coop at the New York State Fair in Syracuse, N.Y. Baker developed the recipe while working for Pennsylvania State University, but the barbecue sauce he devised was not appreciated until he joined the Cornell faculty with a mandate to promote New York state's poultry industry.

In 1999, President Bill Clinton, first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and their daughter, Chelsea, toured the state fair. There they visited Baker's Chicken Coop eatery, specifically to savor a taste of the famous Cornell barbecued chicken. As the first family arrived at the barbecue stand, one of Baker's daughters, Reenie, presented the Clintons with a basket of New York state apples. "Those apples look good, but where's the chicken?" the president asked.

During his career, Baker developed dozens of poultry products. Some of the key products were ground poultry, chicken nuggets and turkey ham. For the chicken nuggets, Baker found a way to keep the breading attached to the nuggets during the frying process. Today the nuggets are a staple in grocery stores and fast-food restaurants. "When the nuggets came out in the 1950s, they weren't too popular," Baker told The Ithaca Journal in a 2004 interview.

Prior to 1980, chicken was packed on ice and shipped to restaurants and grocers. Baker and Joseph Hotchkiss, then an assistant professor of food science and now chair of the department, worked to develop modified atmosphere packaging and vacuum packaging to improve the chicken-shipping process. The late chicken magnate Frank Perdue implemented these ideas immediately, and the processes are used to this day.

Baker was born Dec. 29, 1921, in Newark, N.Y. He earned a bachelor's degree from Cornell in 1943, majoring in pomology at the College of Agriculture. After college he worked for Cornell Cooperative Extension in Saratoga County, N.Y., and took an interest in the 4-H youth program. He received a master's degree from Penn State in 1949 and a doctorate from Purdue University before joining the Cornell faculty in 1957.

In 1970 he founded Cornell's Institute of Food Science and Marketing and served as the institute's first director. He retired in 1989.

He is survived by his wife, Jacoba, whom he married in 1944; two sons, Dale, of Lansing, and Kermit, of Boston; and four daughters, Regina Robbins, of Knoxville; Reenie Sandsted and Johanna Baker, both of Lansing; and Karen Applebee, of Towanda, Pa.; 12 grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren. A son, Myron, died in 1969.

There will be a Cornell chicken barbecue at the Lansing Methodist Church from 4 to 6 p.m. on Saturday, which will be followed by a memorial service at 7 p.m. in the Lansing Middle School Auditorium.

In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the Methodist Church Memorial fund or to a graduate student fund that is being set up at Cornell's Department of Food Science. Donations for this fund can be sent to the attention of Joseph Hotchkiss, Department of Food Science, 116 Stocking Hall, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY 14853.