Tenders, Love, and Care

Illustration by Annie Yan

The page is mostly white space. At the bottom is a text box into which you can enter your phone number, purportedly for purposes of future notification. In the upper right-hand corner sits a little plugin allowing you to provide a Facebook like. And smack dab in the center are two cerulean letters in the prototypical Yale font, broadcasting a simple message: “No.” Beneath it, a sympathetic addendum: “But you’ve still got options.” The last word conveniently links to the Google Maps location of the Popeyes on Whalley Ave.

I’m looking at isitchickentendersday.com, a website with a narrow but abundantly clear function. Its only page boasts a humble “No” today because it is not Chicken Tenders Day. But every two weeks, the “No” is replaced with a “Yes” because — you guessed it — on those momentous occasions, it is Chicken Tenders Day. The necessity of the site, however, isn’t apparent. The same information can be found in the Yale Dining App, Yale Menus — its cooler older cousin — or deeply embedded in the internal clocks of almost every Yale student. An Overheard at Yale post from 2017 quotes a Saybrook alumnus as having said, “I may be [more than] 2500 miles away but I still know when it’s [Chicken Tenders Day].”

Chicken Tenders Day — also known as Chicken Tenders Thursday, Tenders Thursday, or, affectionately, Tendies Day — is a ubiquitous element of Yale culture. But tenders can also be found outside of the dining halls and on days other than Thursday. They’re among the most iconic offerings at another Yale fixture: Durfee’s.

Almost every student understands the combinatorial optimization necessary to construct the perfect $9 swipe. Consequently, the recent price hike of their tenders from $5.95 to $6.95 has resulted in considerable hubbub. I contacted Melissa Roberts, Communications and Marketing Manager for Yale Hospitality, to determine the motivation behind this unexpected change. She wrote in an email, “This year’s $1.00 increase is the first in over three years, even though labor and food costs rise annually. Durfee’s tenders, as opposed to Student Dining’s tenders, are a convenience item. They continue to be available as a swipe exchange and as a value pack which includes chips, fruit and water.”

For many students, the convenience of Durfee’s tenders cannot be replicated elsewhere. “My experience with Durfee’s has always been more positive, by a factor of at least three or four. I’m always way more satisfied,” one student told me. “I think that the fundamental difference is that when I get Durfee’s tenders, it’s like 4 p.m. [and] I haven’t had lunch — whatever I’m gonna eat is amazing.” But they were perplexed by the habits of typical Durfee’s patrons. “A lot of people eat Durfee’s at the regular lunch time, which is mind-boggling to me. Like, why would you do that when you could just get regular lunch?”

I put out a poll in each of the Yale College class Facebook groups to get a feel for the relative popularity of the three on-campus offerings: Student Dining, Durfee’s, and Slifka. There were a surprising 369 responses, though the numbers are undoubtedly inflated, as at least a few people voted in several polls — my sincerest apologies to any die-hard statisticians. Nevertheless, the results were overwhelmingly clear — 68 percent of the respondents thought the dining hall tenders were best, with 23 percent preferring Durfee’s, and only eight percent choosing Slifka. A number of people reached out to voice their more nuanced opinions. Matthew Schneider, MY ’22, wrote that “nothing beats the southern tender flavor of Bojangles’ Chicken Supremes,” but conceded that the dining halls were the best option “up north.” Oliver Orr, PC ’19, didn’t think the off-campus options could compare. “Every time I miss [Chicken Tenders Thursday] for class, I go to a retail chicken tendery to compensate,” he wrote. “Every time, I tell myself that the store-bought tenders are just as good as the dining hall tenders. Every time, I’m lying.” Others professed loyalties to specific dining halls. “We always have a selection of a minimum of four sauces,” boasted one student in TD. “The new cilantro sauce in Berkeley for chicken tender day pops off,” another student told me, “and that’s all I’ll say.” Another insisted that “there’s something magic in the [barbecue] sauce” offered at Trumbull’s late lunch.

A few Thursdays back I sat down with Sammy Grob, MC ’21, in the Trumbull dining hall. It was Chicken Tenders Day, and he was partaking with enthusiasm. Between bites of breading, he expounded upon their appeal. “They’re one of those things that I like subjectively and can also appreciate why they’re so great objectively,” he told me. “Every chicken tender is unique. It’s just like a snowflake. It looks different, it tastes a tiny bit different. It’s got these kind of crusty things on the side that jut out from the main tender.” Tenders are also unique in their culinary construction, he told me. “It’s a lovely package because it’s protein packaged in a carb. A delicious carb. It’s got a nice golden feel to it.” He also speculated on the appeal of tenders as opposed to nuggets. While nuggets are composed of unknown mush, he explained, tenders have a seemingly healthier quality. “With a tender you can see the stringy bits of sinew and muscle of the chicken. It makes you think that it came from a more naturally occurring place.”

I spoke with an anonymous student who advocated on behalf of the Slifka contingent. They explained that none of the other tenders available to Yale students are kosher. Slifka also deserves style points, they argued, because their tenders are hand-breaded and baked in-house. Melissa Roberts expanded slightly on the preparation process, explaining that Slifka tenders, in adherence to kashrut law, don’t contain the typical buttermilk.

Other dietary restrictions also warrant discussion. Several anonymous students reached out to voice their frustration with the apparent lack of gluten-free alternatives. “Chicken tender Thursday makes me sad because I can’t have gluten, and I have to look at everyone enjoying something I wish to eat,” wrote one student. But there is one fried chicken option that works for them. “Garden Catering helps fill the nugget-shaped hole in my heart.” According to the student, they offer batches of gluten-free nuggets, cooked separately from those containing gluten. “I love that their gluten-free nugs and their vegetarian nugs are different,” wrote another student about Garden Catering. “They didn’t just put all the ‘not regular’ things in one.” They also offer a vegetarian alternative to chicken, which comes with the highest recommendation from Phoebe Cardenas, BF ’21. “I am not a vegetarian, but I think that the cauliflower nuggets at Garden Catering are amazing and need to be commended,” she wrote. There are also vegetarian options offered on-campus: Durfee’s offers samosas, which Melissa Roberts described as “a different flavor profile and vegetarian alternative” to their tenders.

After catching wind of my tenders investigation, Sam Gallen, SY ’22, invited me to his buttery shift. I arrived to find an environment which sounded and smelled like home — friends conversed, music played, and the pleasant aura of boiling oil was thick in the air. I spoke to him across the counter as he took orders and prepared food. “The Saybrook buttery, also known as the Squiche, has the best chicken tenders on campus,” he stated with pride. Throughout our conversation, he dished out their many other offerings, including something called the “manliestwich,” piled high with just about everything you can fit between two slices of bread. “That’s probably the most intense sandwich we offer,” he said. One of his coworkers, Lucy Wilkins, SY ’22, spoke to the tendency of some Yalies toward such foods. “We’re adding healthy items to the menu,” she said, “because Yale’s kinda boujee, and people either come for the really healthy stuff, or they don’t care, and they just want shit.” She also mentioned that they’d once attempted to replace their oil fryer with a healthier air fryer, but received immediate backlash. “With the chicken tenders, you may as well just go full on in, because if people are trying to be healthy they’re probably not even going to have chicken tenders, they’re gonna have a smoothie, or eggs, or avocado toast.”

Partway through our discussion, I learned that Lucy, in addition to her job at the Squiche, works at Durfee’s. “I feel like I’m surrounded by the chicken tenders of Yale,” she confessed. When I asked her to speak to the popularity of Durfee’s tenders, she was visibly eager to respond. “Okay, it’s fucking insane — sorry,” she said, backing off from her initial intensity. But she reiterated her point, speaking to the experience of her and her coworkers. “It’s all women — everyone who works at Durfee’s,” she noted. (I suppose I’d been unconsciously aware of this, but I’d never heard it stated outright.) She explained that of the five workers on a given day, the burden of tenders usually falls to one of them. “One person’s job is literally just to stand at the tender oven and cook tenders. Which is, like, a lot. They just stand there all day, putting tenders in the oven and out.” The lines for tenders can often reach as long as 18 people, she explained. Though demand fluctuates throughout the day, their popularity is generally unwavering, and their oven is consequently pushed to its limits. “I feel like the oven has probably broken, in the last six months, maybe four times, and we’ve just had to bring a new one in,” she told me. “The other day it broke in the morning, and they literally replaced it in two hours.”

Tenders are a phenomenon — one which has gripped Yale for at least the last 10 years, according to Melissa Roberts. They’ve spawned dozens of Overheard posts, innumerable debates, a Pundits prank, and their own dedicated website. Aside from their obvious merits — their taste, their texture, their convenience — what is it that makes them so special? “For me, the chicken tender represents family and friends and a time before the complexities of adulthood,” wrote Alexander Rosas, Dean of Pauli Murray College, in an email. “Chicken-tender Thursdays are a refuge from the stresses of everyday life.” Melissa Roberts concurred, writing that tenders are a “comfort food, reminding us of a childhood past.” Sammy Grob seemed to think that their significance lies in their placement within our calendar. “Every other Thursday? Thursday becomes an event,” he told me as our lunch was drawing to a close. He didn’t think they’d have the same cult status if they were offered on Friday. “When I think about the Friday, I think about the end of the weekend,” he continued. “But Thursday is the moment before the kiss, you know? Thursday is the anticipation of release. The anticipation of the anticipation.” He smiled between bites, an artist’s palette of sauces splayed across his plate. “Chicken tenders represent that anticipation for me, of the release of the weekend. And I love that.”

The status of tenders at Yale, however, may soon be undergoing a drastic shift. According to a staff member, Durfee’s is set to close upon the opening of the Schwarzman Center. “This is the last year of Durfee’s,” they said. Dumbfounded, I contacted Melissa Roberts for a definitive answer about the status of Durfee’s. Her response was nebulous. “At this point, I’m unaware of any definitive plans for Durfee’s with the opening of Schwarzman next year,” she wrote in her response. The anonymous source mentioned the possibility of a new Grab N’ Go location opening within the Schwarzman Center. However, they “don’t think there’ll be tenders.”

With the future of Durfee’s up in the air, those of us lucky enough to consume their tenders should savor every bite — even if it means substituting a humble water for a Hubert’s lemonade or sacrificing an Awake bar. We shouldn’t take our tenders for granted. We also shouldn’t forget about those who make them for us. As her shift was winding down, I asked Wilkins for any remaining, pressing thoughts about Durfee’s. She had a clear message to share. “The women who work there every day literally spend their weeks making tenders for Yale students,” she said. “Be nice to the women at Durfee’s when you go in, because they hate making tenders, and they make so many.”

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