“Do I have to use my name? I feel like I’ll get dragged through the mud.”
That was one of the responses I received when I put out the call on Facebook to see if anyone in my circle of friends and familiars wanted to talk about their love of fast food companies like Chick-fil-A and In-N-Out despite their problematic conservative beliefs. A handful of people I knew, or friends-of-friends stepped forward, tentatively, before ultimately declining to be interviewed or ghosting.
Their reluctance to publicly say they still frequent these fast food restaurants makes sense. A few weeks back it was reported that Chick-fil-A, the Atlanta-based fast food chain, gave almost two million dollars to anti-LGBTQ organizations in 2017, a reversal on a previous pledge that they would not. In today’s call out culture, where progressive values are dominant and social media ire leads to things being "cancelled," Chick-fil-A’s continued missteps seem primed for outrage and boycotts.
So perhaps it wasn’t a huge surprise when Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey came under fire after eating Chick-fil-A and then tweeting about it (during Pride month, no less). Or that websites like Eater and the Huffington Post have called out the fast food company for its controversial beliefs and donations. Or that many celebrities have made it known that they are not fans due to the company’s political views.
And yet, despite all of that, it appears that business is booming as the brand is on track to become the third largest fast food company in America. Pete Buttigieg, the Democratic gay mayor of South Bend, Indiana who is running for President, recently gave the chain a measured endorsement. And in Manhattan, perhaps the country’s most liberal city, it’s not uncommon to see lines form outside the Chick-fil-A locations, oftentimes needing an employee to help corral chicken-sandwich-loving customers.
In a similar boat is the California-based In-N-Out, which has a history of donating to the Republican Party and printing Bible verses on its packaging, but remains a popular fast food destination with fervent fans, even among West Coast liberal elites (not to mention movie stars), showing up in their sun-dappled Instagram posts with relative regularity.
So, as our cultural divide continues to widen, why is it that the politics of food are often met with a shrug, or, at best, some wishy-washy equivocation? And what does it say about the limits of boycott culture that so many people who find these companies views offensive are still willing to wait in line for a taste of their crispy chicken?
“I do remember when I first learned about Chick-fil-A’s anti-gay donations,” says a gay 29-year-old freelance writer from New York who asked me not to use his name. “I feel like this is an unfortunate reaction, but I feel like I’m so accustomed to these sorts of news stories that, to me, it was sort of: Ugh, another one?”
He notes that there’s a corollary here, between gay men enjoying the cult figures like Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, and Ramona Singer from Real Housewives of New York, all of whom have at various times made their allegiances to Republican or right wing-leaning philosophies known. “But we continue to support them because we find them iconographic in some way,” he says.
Another young woman I know through a friend says she eats it from time to time, even though she disagrees with its anti-LGBTQ leanings. “It’s difficult, though, because I have a pretty complicated relationship with all fast food chains and their practices, and, to be honest, all big corporations. However they’re so big, to completely cut myself off from either just seems almost pointless, not to mention difficult. It’s like how so many people don’t love Amazon and all that it represents but sometimes it’s just too convenient to turn away from.”
A 38-year-old Austin-based woman who works in technology seconded that idea. “If you look at any corporation close enough, you’re probably going to find something unsavory, right? These days, I’m never surprised to hear of a business’ shady practices or I’m always waiting for the news that some brand I like is embroiled in some controversy,” she says. “Not that that’s an excuse, but it just feels like if I boycotted everything that had any sort of questionable business practice, I’d literally be living like a pioneer woman.”
Like Facebook or Twitter, a fast food chain is a sum of immeasurable parts — a broad network, making it hard to define in absolute terms.
“What comes to mind is that all these entertainers have been boycotted or shunned for things they’ve done,” says Tim Forster, a reporter for the food website Eater. “I’m thinking of #MeToo, even though it’s not a perfect parallel to this. But it’s much easier to boycott Louis CK than it is [to] boycott an entire chain with thousands of locations. People feel like Chick-fil-A, the food is separated from any political ideology, whereas a celebrity embodies the wrongdoing. Chick-fil-A or a sandwich doesn’t embody, in a direct way, the ideas.”
Forster points out that corporations are oftentimes opaque societal institutions that represent millions of dollars and tens of thousands of employees, all of whom aren’t bad or good or Republican or Democrat or anti- or pro-LGBTQ. A fast food company is a nebulous and sprawling entity. Harvey Weinstein is not: he’s the totality of his evils, and he is a single human who can be avoided or punished.
Of course, baked within fast food patronage is the increasing politicization of things like the divide between urban centers and rural communities and the price of food. It’s easy for city-dwellers to abstain as they can easily find meal options that align with their beliefs within their community. There’s also the fact that these urbanites may be able to prioritize and also afford aspects of the food experience like local produce and an emphasis on healthier options, which are more readily available, and can read as elitist.
“To some degree it’s just a matter of convenience,” Forster said of the the fact that Chick-fil-A, despite the recent uproar, will probably walk away unharmed, regardless of its political inclinations. Traditionally fast food has flourished more in suburban and rural areas, where its anti-LGBT inclinations are probably in line with that of the surrounding community and where it’s an option that’s both easy and cheap.
“A lot of people don’t see Chick-fil-A’s actions as hateful, they see them as consistent with their biblically based beliefs,” says Geoffrey Ian Bara, a 35-year-old bartender based in Little Rock, Arkansas. Bara, who considers himself a Democrat (though "most prudent voters would be hesitant to say they agree with everything their party says"), gave up eating at the fast food chain around seven years ago because of its anti-LGBTQ donations.
Yet he sees why its popularity remains. “It has to do a lot with a person’s regional and cultural identity. What things we ate when we were children,” he says. “I know so many gay people who eat it. I don’t know how they reconcile it. They either don’t want to talk about it or say they don’t care.”
Speaking of cheap, that was one of the other reasons people I spoke with could justify the purchase. A former colleague told me that he knew someone who would eat at the chain, but donate the same amount he spent there to an LGBTQ organization to absolve him from his sins. Meanwhile the nameless writer friend noted that he felt slightly better about his Chick-fil-A purchases because they were so rare: he only went two to three times a year, in his estimation, with orders that totaled around twenty dollars. The Austin-based woman said that she tries to maintain a healthy diet, so a visit to Chick-fil-A was rare and already seen as a “cheat” — that its business practices added to the idea that it was "bad" or a "naughty indulgence." "I already feel guilty for going there for health reasons," she said. "Its whole backstory is just … look, it’s all bad."
"We do what we can," says Bara. "And sometimes we fall short of the goal of being the best person in the whole wide world."
What we eat is the story of who we are, and like each of us, there are plenty of contradictions and nuances contained within each drive-thru order or farm-to-table splurge. The politics of food are strange and twisting, just as the food industry is. What we put in our bodies, how those things get to us, and where they come from are oftentimes parts of big nebulous machines well beyond the tangible scope of our daily lives. Because of this, perhaps, it’s easy to ignore the more nefarious motives of these companies. Or, in the case of industrialized food production, we already assume the worst.
Still, maybe all the media attention is leading to change. Due to its donations, Chick-fil-A was dropped from the food lineup at the San Antonio International airport, Buffalo Niagara International Airport, and now protests are being staged regarding the Chick-fil-A planned at an airport in San Jose. So while the food may be fast, change is often slow. That’s something to chew on.