Food Commentary: The Chicken Sandwich Wars — Political Food Fight Revisited
By Matt Hanson
I confess that I was one of those schmucks who tried (and failed) to stay vigilant in my high-minded refusal to eat at Chick-fil-A.
“You are what you eat” is as big a cliché as there is but, like some (but not all) clichés, it contains a grain of truth. We are all a mélange of what we have absorbed, whether or not we are consciously aware of it. A postmodern update of this truism would be “you are what you consume.” Market-oriented societies like ours are expert at conflating satisfactions: desires and appetites dovetail with an individual’s identity and agency. Buying what you want and shopping where you wish becomes an easy way of advertising to the world who you think you are and how you want others to perceive you. Of course, conspicuous consumption as egotism/snobbery has been going on since the first caveman dragged the biggest hunk of bison meat back to the cave. But today, what you buy is not only a mark of social status but a sign of your political identity: witness the long-standing food fight over the ideological significance of chicken sandwiches via the alternatives offered by Chick-fil-A and Popeyes.
A few years back, the Chick-fil-A fast food company caught quite a bit of flak generated by the company’s reactionary politics and their financial support of anti-LGBT organizations. Thomas Menino, Boston’s then-mayor, declared that the company’s conservatism had no place in a liberal city and made noises about not allowing Chick-fil-A to establish a new franchise within the city limits. Why should consumers care about a company’s politics? At the time, plenty of people argued that they were totally opposed to the company’s moral preferences but just happened to like the way they made its chicken sandwiches. Others argued that eating Chick-fil-A’s chicken was in some way participating or covertly endorsing the company’s backward ideology. Sometimes a chicken sandwich is just a chicken sandwich — until you see it as embedded in a complex web of relations between capital, labor, and ideology.
I confess that I was one of those schmucks who tried (and failed) to stay vigilant in my high-minded refusal to eat at Chick-fil-A. One of the hallmarks of our deracinated political moment is that making small, almost meaningless consumption choices like that passes for feeling “political.” But one day my hunger — aggravated by the promise of cheap, convenient chow — won out. Regrettably, I munched on a salty, tough, oddly floppy chicken breast awkwardly wedged into the middle of a smeared, inflexible sandwich bun. Eating well is not just about the vittles: it is about atmosphere, mood, and ambiance, as the gourmands say. Maybe it was my defeated self-righteousness that ruined my lunch, but the sandwich did not hold up its end of the deal. Once again, America’s hyper-efficient market logic screwed up my lunch: lured by convenience and inexpensiveness, I finished the sandwich feeling slightly worse than when I started. I was unsatisfied in a strangely familiar way.
The quasi-libertarian approach to political food fights is to “vote with your feet.” If you don’t like a vendor or product then simply don’t give them your business. But this maxim turns out to be very impractical when it comes to making a difference. Plenty of people across the country would have been more than happy to frequent their local mom & pop shops, but in innumerable cases loyalty has not meant much. Beloved local hot spots are consumed by and then replaced with a box store syndicate or a corporate chain. You could go out of your way to find a store that matches a particular aesthetic or moral standard, sure, but the reality is that when you’re in the middle of your morning commute you’re going to just line up at Starbucks or McDonald’s, like everyone else.
Now on the chicken sandwich front there’s some buzz. The Popeyes chicken franchise is offering a bird sandwich that has been praised for having “more flavor, less homophobia.” Protest Chick-fil-A’s stodgy disapproval of gays by enjoying a chicken sandwich with a side dish of wokeness and self-admiration. Based in New Orleans, with a fun theme song written by local legend Dr. John, Popeyes has recently received some slightly overcooked praise from the New Yorker. The headline of a recent piece declared that “The Popeyes’ Chicken Sandwich Is Here To Save America.” This kind of hyperbole should be sprinkled with boulders of salt, of course. But the piece pinpoints how bridging the culture divide goes well beyond dueling chicken sandwiches.
A brunch place in California was discovered using Popeyes’ chicken, direct from takeout, as the meat portion for its version of chicken and waffles. The kicker is that the dish was priced multiple times above Popeyes’ asking price! Cashing in on the consumer’s desire for conspicuous consumption is quintessentially American, but offering a slightly gussied-up version of the exact same fast food available elsewhere takes things too far. As the author notes, Popeyes makes some real quality fried chicken, robust and spicy and with a nice crunch in every bite. But it is amusingly desperate when a restaurant decides to smuggle in fast food fried chicken in order to fake down-home authenticity.
It should not be overlooked that Popeyes, being a New Orleans institution, emanates considerable cultural hipness. New Orleans, where I now live, is well and justly known as a one-of-a-kind culinary mecca. It is a city proud of its conviviality and easygoing attitude. But what one quickly discovers about the food culture here is how diverse it all is. There’s the old standards like gumbo, jambalaya, and crawfish, all of which are delightful in their own ways. But this is a city whose history is steeped in improvisation, so there’s so much more available than is marketed to tourists. Most of the locals I’ve talked to since moving here are appreciative of their city’s food culture. But they are also almost unanimous in proclaiming that only their parents, grandparents, or extended family can make a particular dish the right way. Recipes have been passed down for generations, different regional and ethnic seasonings added along the way. Carrying on this family tradition — especially in the face of corporate attempts to co-opt it — is what makes the New Orleanians I’ve talked to proudest of all.
This hyper-local, deeply traditional approach to eating offers a homegrown remedy to the ideological food fights that massive corporations engage in, partly as a desperate attempt at brand boosting. Instead of fussing over whether or not a particular conglomerate happens to have philosophical leanings that match your own, or worrying about the political implications that one brand is more authentic (or liberal) than another, perhaps it would be best to take a page from the NOLA culinary playbook. Regarding culinary authenticity, do as those in the Big Easy do: turn down the hype, go back to your roots, toss those soggy takeout bags into the nearest dumpster, and start flipping through your grandmother’s cookbook. It is bound to be cheaper, funkier, more creative, and certainly more nourishing than another trip to the drive-through. And it might even end up saving America.
Matt Hanson is a contributing editor at the Arts Fuse whose work has also appeared in American Interest, Baffler, Guardian, Millions, New Yorker, Smart Set, and elsewhere. A longtime resident of Boston, he now lives in New Orleans.