Celebrate, if you must, a National Day of Gastrointestinal Distress at Chic-Fil-A

Lester Maddox, overseeing his lunatic empire at the Pickrick restaurant, 1960

As Sigmund Freud should have said, although it’s not clear that he ever actually did, “Sometimes a chicken nugget is just a chicken nugget.” That’s the way I regard the latest skirmish in the culture wars, which was ignited this week by the comments of the owner of a privately held chain of chicken sandwich shops.

A loudmouth named Dan Cathy — call him “Chatty” Cathy — who controls a fast-food chain called Chik-fil-A, recently clucked and squawked on a radio program, expressing his view that same-sex marriages are an abomination before the Lord.

There is something familiar, and not just a little quaint, about the loquacious proprietor of a stupidly named Atlanta chicken-stand who also happens to be a bigot.

It harkens back to the days of Lester Maddox, owner of the city’s Pickrick Restaurant, which used to offer up fried chicken along with a side order of unpalatable political opinions. Mr. Maddox didn’t much care for Negroes in his restaurant; half a century later, Mr. Cathy implies that homosexuals may not be entirely welcome in his chain. Mr. Maddox managed to parlay his abhorrent racial views into a successful political career, capped, remarkably, by a four-year stint as the governor of Georgia.

Symmetrically, Chatty Cathy’s esteem is rising among various right-wing cranks, following his screwball utterances. Sarah Palin chowed down at Chik-fil-A, and posted to her Facebook page a snapshot of her telegenic self, and spouse, clutching large two paper bags filled with fried treats. A second ex-governor-turned-Fox-TV-star, the formerly portly Mike Huckabee, is promoting a national day of support for Chic-fil-A this Wednesday (08/01/12), confirming the practice of old-time Arkansas politicians, of proudly standing up to defend that which is wrong.

Gov. Faubus of the Razorback State, on the wrong side of history

Meanwhile, protests against the chain are gaining momentum throughout California, and in Chicago, Boston, and Kansas City. Chatty Cathy may feel he’s spoken his piece and finally gotten a load off his chest, but his franchisees in America’s blue states presumably did not contract to take sides in any contentious religio-societal dispute. It is these unfortunate licensees who will become the unwilling casualties of a partisan skirmish. (Of course, if they’re lucky, they will endure to see their properties re-open as thriving Chipotle or Pei-Wei branches.)

At some point during these activities, Chic-fil-A’s director of public relations died of a heart attack.

This poignant development underscores that far too much has been made of an imbroglio over a simple matter of chicken, mayonnaise, iceberg lettuce, and bun. (I say that, but it dawns on me that I’ve never actually consumed a Chic-fil-A item. The one time I was stuck in the Atlanta airport for an extended period, and hungry enough to eat just about anything, happened to occur on a Sunday. And as anyone south of the Mason-Dixon line will tell you, Chic-fil-A is steadfast in refusing to open its wickets on the Lord’s Day. I settled for what might have been a Krystal burger and a Dr. Pepper.)

It’s not that politics, or controversy, is new to the domain of fast food. Ray Kroc (1902-1984), the mighty progenitor of McDonald’s, refused to pipe down regarding his ardor for Richard M. Nixon and Republican Party causes, to the dismay of his board.

More recently, several canny lunch-counter operators have traditionally introduced quadrennial “hot dog polls,” and will this year offer customers the opportunity to purchase otherwise identical Mitt-furters or Obama-wieners, with the tally of purchases reflecting local or regional popularity of the candidates. All presented in good-natured fun, if not necessarily the best thing for the old ticker.

Nor are cultural schisms without precedent in the fast food universe. Toward the end of his life, Mr. Kroc found his values to be in conflict with those of his Parisian licensee, M. Raymond Dayan. M. Dayan saw nothing wrong with the Gallic practice of offering a glass of a vin ordinaire at mealtime, and added the beverage to the menus of his dozen franchised McDo’s. Head office in Chicago objected. Mr. Kroc was a straight-laced Middle-westerner by birth and disposition and held strong views against alcohol being tended under his golden arches. It follows, too, that he was also an alcoholic. Neither Mr. Kroc nor M. Dayan would budge on their positions. Consequently, the 12 French McDonald’s broke away from the chain, and instantly reopened as “O’Kitsch,” which joyfully continued to dispense biere et vin, along with le Big Mac under a different name. That is, until a few years later, when the last location shut down. When you get down to it, O’Kitsch may not have been the most appetizing identity to select.

This historical precedent may foretell the resolution of the current Chic-fil-A kerfuffle. We may yet see a hiving off of some northern Chic-fil-A locations, which could, in theory, reinvent themselves as something more accommodating to the LGBTQ market. Thereafter, Mr. Cathy, and Govs. Palin and Huckabee may continue to clog their arteries in formica-lined luxury, reasonably free from fear of an encounter with an intruding married gay couple.

I certainly don’t propose that such an apartheid solution would be a desirable outcome for the chain, its customers, or the nation.

But, then again, I tend to stick to Subway — where you can usually order your sandwich without having the owner’s religion and politics forced down your throat.

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