DEDHAM — I was a Chick-fil-A virgin.
If you want a mark of my Yankeetude, there it is. I made it well into adulthood without ever having a chicken biscuit or a Spicy Deluxe sandwich or the distinctively lump-shaped nuggets or the waffle fries. One summer my family took a road trip through the South, but we just kept driving past the battalion of buildings adorned with the company’s crimson-combed logo. (There are a lot of them: more than 200 in the chicken chain’s home state of Georgia alone.) On to the truck stops we loved, where we ordered 18-wheeler breakfasts and my sister and I hoped for gift shops where we could buy T-shirts emblazoned with cheesy wolves and country-western cassette tapes. And then home again, to delis with bowls of half-sours on every table and takeout Chinese on Friday nights.
Then, a few weeks ago, Chick-fil-A opened in Dedham. The company website identifies Massachusetts as an emerging market; there were already nine other stores in state. (Another is scheduled to open Nov. 16 in Marlborough.) This one is so close to Boston, it might as well be in the city, just a few minutes’ walk to the West Roxbury line. Two years before he died, Mayor Thomas Menino sent a fiery letter to Chick-fil-A chairman and CEO Dan Cathy, who had spoken out against same-sex marriage. “I urge you to back out of your plans to locate in Boston,” Menino wrote. Now there’s a Chick-fil-A about 2 miles from his Hyde Park house.
Generally speaking, put in front of me a food I haven’t tried that has a hold on the hearts of a large swath of America, and I am there. But also, I have no interest in supporting a business that has opposed gay marriage.
Where do we draw the lines about what we consume, where we spend our time and money? I can’t watch Kevin Spacey right now: Although I’ll always love the reveal at the end of “The Usual Suspects,” I’m starting to think he really may be Keyser Soze. I’ll take a knee on Papa John’s, but I wasn’t a fan even before CEO John Schnatter blamed declining sales on NFL players engaged in righteous protest. (Schnatter: Have you tasted the pizza recently?) On the other hand, there are allegations of questionable labor practices at Amazon: But my free two-day shipping!
There are things to admire about Chick-fil-A, too: its commitment to service, employee longevity, and youth mentorship, for instance. It has succeeded by staying true to its values, which are rooted in Christianity. (The chicken chain is closed on Sundays.) According to foodservice publication Nation’s Restaurant News, “over the past five years, Chick-fil-A’s systemwide sales have increased nearly 73 percent, to nearly $7.9 billion from $4.6 billion.” It has since walked back its public expression of political views, as it looks to expand into new markets. (Nothing gooses ideological change quite like the almighty buck(-buck).)
The official corporate purpose is thus: “To glorify God by being a faithful steward of all that is entrusted to us and to have a positive influence on all who come into contact with Chick-fil-A.” It’s as loving on the surface as it is open to interpretation, but as a culturally Jewish agnostic who attends the Temple of Live and Let Live, I’m willing to give it a chance.
So on a recent afternoon — when, if logistics had only cooperated, I would have been in Mexico, bawling into my champagne flute at one of the very same-sex marriages Cathy decried (on my planet simply referred to as “a wedding”) — I found myself pulling into the parking lot of Chick-fil-A for the first time.
I was not alone. There was a backup at the drive-through. There was a guy directing traffic. There was nowhere to park. There was a line out the door. People were taking selfies with the sign in the background.
The interior was bright, spotless, more stylish than I’d imagined — more midscale chain brewpub than fast-food restaurant. And everyone was here: parents with tattoo sleeves, church ladies, people comparing notes on military life, a doppelganger for Poussey on “Orange Is the New Black,” obnoxious teenage boys flirting with plaid-kilted Catholic-school girls. We all waited in line together. Then our food was delivered right to our tables by sweet kids who will grow up to be good citizens.
I wasn’t going to do anything crazy. It was my first time, after all. I ordered the original Chick-fil-A sandwich: a squishy bun, toasted and buttered; a crisp fried cutlet; a necessary layer of tart dill pickle chips. I had the waffle fries, which had a unique cardboard texture. It was all pretty satisfying, in its way. I asked for the Chick-fil-A sauce, which was like barbecue sauce blended with French dressing and mayonnaise — which is to say vile, to my taste.
Because I didn’t grow up eating it.
This wasn’t my food. I couldn’t lay claim to it. It had no deeper meaning for me. Half the people in this Dedham Chick-fil-A were curious, like me, or simply hungry. But the other half were here for a taste of home. (Several queer friends have recently confessed to sneaking guilty orders of waffle fries or spicy biscuits or nuggets.) We are willing to overlook a lot for love, as some of us will soon be reminded while avoiding political talk at Thanksgiving. Something as simple as chicken sandwiches can bring us to the same table, too.
I left Chick-fil-A full, and I stayed that way well into the next day.
140 Providence Highway, Dedham, 781-320-8127, www.chick-fil-a.comDevra First can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.