Every Day Is Like Sunday
My Long Overdue, Mostly Painless, But Also Weirdly Fraught Breakup With Chick-Fil-A
My first memory of Chick-Fil-A is a memory of a bag. I’m sitting in the food court at Hamilton Place Mall in Chattanooga, Tenn.; it’s back when Hamilton Place is still the biggest mall in Tennessee, back when my family still calls it The New Mall. We will call it The New Mall far beyond the point at which it could reasonably be considered “new,” but in this memory, it actually still is—sparkling and bright and busy at midday. The food court is lined with palm trees and, out in the middle of the floor, under the wide vaulted skylight, there’s a tiered fountain, its tile basin dappled with pennies. There’s a Zack’s Famous Frozen Yogurt across the way, and a Barnie’s Coffee and Tea. It’s all so incredibly 90s. I’m six or seven, I guess, a new reader, reading everything, including the paper bag that my lunch came in, which declares: “We didn’t invent the chicken, just the chicken sandwich!”
What I am eating is probably not a chicken sandwich; it is more likely chicken nuggets or chicken strips, to which I pledged fast-food fealty for most of my childhood and adolescence, including one sixth-grade family trip to Washington, D.C. during which I ate nothing but fried-chicken pieces and kept an elaborate ranking system in my diary (I don’t remember the best but the worst were the grainy nuggets from the National Zoo’s snack bar, which were shaped like animals—gross and gauche).
The Chick-Fil-A bag’s claim is probably not even true; humankind has its failings, but one of them is not a historical inability to recognize that barnyard fowl plus bread equals lunch. I’m not even sure I believe that it took until the 1940s for a Georgia boy named S. Truett Cathy to factor two pickle slices and a slick of mayonnaise into the equation. Still, in my memory and today, those words are printed on every bit of packaging, every sheath of waxy foil ensconcing every crispy, salty knob of meat to emerge from Chick-Fil-A’s deep-fryers. In a fast-food marketing world glutted with laughably untrue tag-lines, it’s king.
My fondness for the chain goes beyond the fact that their slogan is one of the first full sentences I remember reading outside of a book. Like many others who grew up in the South after the advent of the suburban mall in the 70s and 80s—when Chick-Fil-A really started taking hold beyond the Atlanta area, where its first location opened in 1967 at the Greenbriar Mall in the suburbs southwest of the city—I can rattle off a brief litany of warm ‘n fuzzy memories forged in proximity to of one of those chicken sandwiches. As teenager, I never felt more sophisticated than while dining in the cafeteria of local university where my school’s junior high Model UN conference was held; I’d use my meal pass on a little white box of nuggets, an overflowing sleeve of waffle fries and a slice of cheesecake and wash it all down with an unholy amount of Dr. Pepper slurped out of one of those giant styrofoam cups with that rooster-faced C emblazoned on its non-biodegradable husk. In high school, back when the guy who is now my husband was adamantly just my friend, I met him at the mall one afternoon after his driving school let out and sat with him in the food court as he wolfed down a sandwich and told me all about the drunk-driving videos he’d been subjected to all day. (In fairness, the guy who is now my husband maintains no such attachment to the brand; we grew up in the same town but he remembers having Chick-Fil-A for the first time as a teenager and mostly burned out on it in college, eating daily in the same cafeteria where I’d had my middle school Model UN feasts years before.) When I was an intern at Paste, it was at staff meetings fueled by huge spreads of chicken nuggets and waffle fries that I first began to raise my hand, fingers sticky with Polynesian sauce (no, I still don’t know what it is) and speak up and make the first gangly steps towards whatever kind of career I have right now.
I feel like I’m writing a treatment for some totally cheeseball commercial spot for the chain right now, but it’s true—I feel like I grew up with these damn chicken sandwiches. They never changed. There’s always been something about Chick-Fil-A that is just so certain, so consistent—and as dependable as those two pickles and steamy buns as are those cruel cravings for chicken biscuits that inevitably hit on Sunday mornings, when every single one of its 1,600 locations are closed.
For a while, the fact that Chick-Fil-A was closed on Sundays was the worst thing anyone had to say about the place, or at least the worst thing that anyone wanted to hear about it, or at least the worst thing I wanted to hear about it. When I moved to Atlanta for college, one of my roommates occasionally groused about the company’s anti-gay leanings—the first I’d heard of it—but equally occasionally skipped dinner at our campus dining hall for a trip down Peachtree for a No. 1 combo and a Coke, and I was always game to join her. A vague feeling of “maybe I should feel bad about this?” followed me over the next few years, when I’d swing by for a bite on a lunch break or a road trip. It was something I cared about but also didn’t care about. I can’t explain it. I should know better. I should act better. I don’t. I don’t know why. I can’t explain it. But when Dan Cathy said what he said, it hit me in a new way, crystallized what I know I already knew. His words seemed more directly hateful, somehow, than donating company profits to actual hate-groups. Perhaps it’s unnecessary to say this so directly but I would hate to be misunderstood here: I unshakably believe that a person has the right to marry whomever they want. I unshakably believe that it is hateful to attempt to or actively deny a person their right to marry whomever they want, whether that is motivated by religious conviction or otherwise. All of this should have enraged me, or at least soured me a while ago. I don’t know why it didn’t. These things happen; sometimes these things fail to take hold like they should. But when I saw the first headline I thought, “Well, this is it.” I don’t remember the last time I ate at a Chick-Fil-A, but I can say with relative certainty it was probably the last time. I just cannot do it anymore. Chick-Fil-A has never changed, but I have, and there’s the whole problem.
I still live in Atlanta, where the company is headquartered, and for some reason at first I thought the story would stay contained to the city. That thought now seems so quaint. I’ve been trying not to follow the news too closely; the other night, when our local NBC affiliate took a break from Olympics coverage for the nightly news and led off with a story about the wildly successful “Chick-Fil-A Appreciation Day,” complete with interviews from some of the hundreds of folks waiting in line at one area store, I couldn’t turn the TV off fast enough. It all just feels like poison. It makes me feel confused and sad and defensive. I feel sad and mad about people in my city, but also sad and mad about the way people outside my city are writing about people in my city, the same people who make me sad and mad. It’s a mean tangle.
On Aug. 3 the New York Times ran a story by Kim Severson, their Atlanta bureau chief: ”A Fast Food Loyalty Rooted in Southern Identity.” It’s ostensibly about two things—the tightly-held traditions of Southern foodways, and the nonpolitical attachment people have to Chick-Fil-A. I know that Severson, who moved here a few years ago for her job, has had problems adjusting to Southern life food-wise, at least, and I this has made me perhaps unreasonably sensitive to her writing. I resent how she seems to resent the South, as if she has been exiled here on Mission: Figure Out What’s The Deal With These People, like we’re some alien race and she’s beaming back her findings to the home planet (which is increasingly how I think of New York these days anyway, or at least what I think about what New York thinks about itself). This chafes me. I’ve lived here all my life and I’m still trying to figure us out. (It helps, I’ve found, to not think about us as so strictly an “us.”) There’s a passage in the piece about a third the way in—a quote from a Charlotte newspaper editor, actually, employed to support Severson’s idea of Southerners “circling the wagons” when attacked by an outsider, as if we’re some hive-minded band of Manifest-Destiny-possessed bumpkins—that seems to attribute this defensiveness I feel to the South’s defeat in the Civil War. Could it also be said that my feet-dragging in deciding to finally forsake Chick-Fil-A is due to my family’s centuries-old roots in Tennessee, the last state to secede from the Union? It’s not just that Severson seems to be trying to crack the South like a nut; it’s that she often seems to think she has, in fact, cracked it. And perhaps she has. Apply enough brute force over a sufficient amount of time and you can crack pretty much anything, or at least pulverize it.
In trying to figure out what, besides the religiopolitical thing, is still driving people to eat at Chick-Fil-A, Severson has decided that out that our collective Chick-Fil-A hangup pretty much comes down to two things: tradition and emotion. “Tradition,” she writes, “whether in food or social issues, is laced throughout daily life in the South. … Southerners also tend to be emotional about their food, which is a great defining aspect of the region.” I cannot argue with these statements, and that is the point of these statements: their inarguability. You can’t make some general comment about some general group of human beings and invoke the ideas of “tradition” and “emotion” and land all that far off base. We also have mouths with which we eat this food. Y’all got mouths up there? Or, whaddaya call ‘em? Pieholes? We also have pie.
Severson talks to two Atlantans for the story, both of them straight white men. I assume they’re straight, at least, because the piece goes out of its way to mention that the men have gay friends, embarrassingly pulling the classic “But some of my best friends are gay!” card for them. One of the men, Severson writes, has “a best friend in the gay pornography business.” She notes that she speaks to him “after his regular stop for a chicken biscuit breakfast on Tuesday.” He tells her, “Chick-fil-A is tradition.”
Here, as it very often is, this claim towards “tradition” is veiling something else. There’s a long history of this in the South—of “tradition” being thrown up as a defense for systems and practices and policies that enforce hatefulness and foster regression. This tendency is a kind of “tradition” in its own right, actually, if you define “tradition” as something with some amount of meaning to someone which has been done in the past, and taught to subsequent generations, and which continues today. But that isn’t what’s happening here, with this guy with a best friend in the gay pornography business. (It occurs to me that mentioning this man’s best friend’s involvement in the gay pornography business is as much of an assurance of his homosexuality as saying that Dan Cathy’s involvement in the chicken sandwich industry is an assurance he is a chicken sandwich.) Sometimes “tradition” can be code for “deep-seated, incomprehensibly vast prejudice” but sometimes it’s also code for “thing I do a lot.” This is also known as “a habit.” And habits are fine. But by their own nature they’re deeply scraped into neural pathways, executed compulsively—we have our rights to them, of course, but they’re tough to defend without sounding lamely righteous.
The other man Severson speaks with seems to have actually reached his decision to continue eating at Chick-Fil-A by weighing various options and opinions. That, or he developed a fairly elaborate retroactive defense for himself when interviewed for the New York Times. Anyway, there’s mention of his respect for the Cathy family and what they’ve done for the city of Atlanta, and of how he got clearance from a gay friend (!) to eat at Chick-Fil-A again, and how for him it just comes down to food, and how he likes the taste of the Chick-Fil-A sandwich over other fast-food chicken sandwiches, and how “Southern food” is “pretty amazing.”
My quibbles with that particular statement of his are a matter of taste and not storytelling mechanics or or word choice so I’ll skip them. But here’s what we have, really, at the end of Severson’s story: Not straight white Southern men deciding to keep eating at Chick-Fil-A because of “tradition” or some sense of deeply-felt regional loyalty, but because they just like to eat at Chick-Fil-A. “There is only so much politics a Southerner can handle with lunch,” Severson writes. Yes, that is true. And there is only so much pandering I can take with my trend piece.
I hate how tidily all this fits into the dominant cultural narratives about the South. I hate it because some of that is wrong, and because some of it is right, and mostly because there are just so many more interesting stories to be told. The main one is that the whole Chick-Fil-A fracas, or at least how it’s unfolding locally in Atlanta, is beautifully illuminating how my generation (or, more specifically, members of my general age cohort with whom I’m lucky enough to be friends and colleagues and neighbors with) tend to operate within the South, or at least the South as I see it.
Here is the South as I see it, by the way: It’s like this big old weird house we have somehow inherited, the whole structure in various states of repair, some rooms clean and bright and well-taken-care-of and whole wings shut off, full of cobwebs and scorpions and who knows what, and the roof and eaves crumbling in parts, but the garden’s nice, and there’s a new septic system, but god there’s that attic, and you’ve heard what happened up there, and all of this is ours to take care of. (Sometimes there are actual old houses involved.) The question is, what do we do with it? What are we supposed to make of it? Its bad parts and its really bad parts, are inextricable from its good parts. It’s a burden and a blessing; it’s hard to pull apart our love and our deep, stinking frustrations. There are repairs to be done, repairs desperately needed for the sake of the whole structure, but so much to be done that it’s hard to know where to even start. We didn’t ask for this. But we have choices: We can live in it and do our best to make it better, or we can live in it and do nothing, or we can vacate completely, make it someone else’s problem.
Atlanta in particular is one hell of a beautiful old leaky old house. The whole Chick-Fil-A thing is actually kind of a perfect encapsulation of the strangeness of the city and the cultural faultlines its cultures straddle—the old-school conservative businessman and the religious right (usually aligned with the suburbs) versus the progressive urban center, and all the shades in between. The irony of it all is so striking, those statements (and that money) coming from a man who lives in, and in part owes the vast success of his business to, a city with one of the largest gay populations in the South, indeed one of the largest in the U.S. It’s counterintuitive and maddening and hard to explain to an outsider. It is so very Atlanta.
The first wave of local response to Cathy’s statements was very Atlanta, too. That weekend, Urban Cannibals, a deli and bodega in East Atlanta owned by a wife-and-wife team (their marriage isn’t recognized in Georgia) debuted their perfectly-named “Urban Cannibals Bites Back” brunch specials, including a riff on the classic Chick-Fil-A sandwich (called, of course, Two-Chicks-Fil-A); it was such a hit, the specials have now been added to their regular menu. Others turned to scrounging together a list of equivalent local alternatives to seek out whenever the cravings strike, as they always do soon as the stuff is out of reach. Over in Decatur, where I live, The Pinewood has a pretty mean fried chicken breast, and Seven Hens (a new all-schnitzel place on North Decatur and Clairemont) isn’t too shabby either; then there’s Leon’s, where the turkey schnitzel sandwich was first sold to me as “like a fancy Chick-Fil-A sandwich” and which might actually be better than the real thing (though no trip I’ve ever made to Chick-Fil-A has ever involved one of Leon’s Old Timers, so I could be chemically biased). Elsewhere in the South, Texas-based food blogger Hilah Johnson posted her recipe for a “Chick-Fil-Gay” sandwich, which would’ve been welcome even without the controversy—no funky preservatives, plus it’s readily available on Sundays.
Perhaps this is just projection, but what all this says to me is that we who have given up on Chick-Fil-A have not done so lightly. It all says as much about Atlanta and the South’s frustration and anger with bigotry and hatred as it does about our connection to our food, even our fast food. We have gone out maybe not kicking and screaming but not entirely willingly. We have spent years making excuses, pushing what we knew to be true about Chick-Fil-A out of our minds, until it was just absolutely unignorable. We know it’s a shitty thing to support a business that is so clearly on the wrong side of history (after all, this isn’t just about Dan Cathy’s personal views on marriage, or his personal views on anything; it’s about Chick-Fil-A dollars, the dollars that used to be our dollars, being donated to hateful anti-gay organizations—ones whose failure rate is noted, at that). But we’re still pretty bummed about those chicken sandwiches. Can you imagine chefs and home cooks taking to their kitchens to master the patty-to-bun ratio of the Quarter Pounder with Cheese, or the exact creamy/grainy texture of a Frosty, and sharing the results to such widespread relief and affection? Actually, I’m sure a quick Pinterest search would prove me wrong on that. Maybe a better way to say it would be: I can’t see myself writing three thousand words about why I’m boycotting McDonalds or Wendy’s.
I should say, though, I hardly consider what I’m doing to be “boycotting Chick-Fil-A”; I just don’t really have any desire to give them my money ever again. This hasn’t been a hard decision to make, from a food-consumption standpoint. Because, ultimately, for every nostalgic, perfectly golden-fried memory I have of the place, I have ten more of veiny chicken, soggy pickles, smushy buns and grease that could barely transcend my colon, let alone lift me to some higher plane of food-dom. For all the borderline cultural fetishization—which I admit I’ve taken part in over the years—Chick-Fil-A is really just a means to an end. It has indeed been my own preferred means to an end for quite some time—a savior on road trips and in lucky airports—but ultimately I eat it, or I ate it, out of convenience or cheapness or familiarity. The nostalgia, at some point, worked its way loose from the grip of reality and is now completely divorced from it. I don’t feel like I’m holding a hot steamy slice of Georgia history in my hands when I unwrap a hot No. 1 combo. I don’t feel like I’m cracking the lid on my own childhood when I open a box of nuggets. I just feel like I’m about to have some greasy chicken and probably soon some farts. Perhaps I could deal with the lingering liberal guilt if not also for the lingering gastrointestinal distress, I don’t know. What I’ve got to deal with now is the cravings. Despite everything I know about the company and the food, ever since I realized I’d probably never eat at Chick-Fil-A again I’ve been wanting Chick-Fil-A. Not one of those very worthy alternatives, but the real thing. It’s weird. I didn’t expect this, but I guess I should have. Now every day is like Sunday.
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