The Lake Pontchartrain Causeway stretches to the horizon and beyond, twin concrete bridges spanning nearly 24 miles and laid so straight it lulls drivers to sleep. Driving north away from New Orleans, the city slips from view and is replaced by water. In front of you, all around you -- just water. Water and the lonely straight marathon ahead. Without the reassuring sight of land, there is a measure of trust that the water and the causeway end -- that this is not a bridge in the ocean, that you will not be duped into driving into the Atlantic. It's an odd feeling to feel at sea in a car, odder still to know that the water below is rarely deeper than a swimming pool.
We are leaving New Orleans on a gray morning to interview Saints tight end Jimmy Graham and cover an NFL Play 60 event at Fifth Ward Junior High in Bush, La. That is the friendliest version of the truth. The more honest version is this: we woke up butt-early and drove over an hour to a place that looks like Bon Temps from "True Blood" to stand around during a grade school assembly. This would be fine had I eaten anything more than a banana at 7 in the morning. By the time I ask Graham if he could beat Rob Gronkowski in a spelling bee (I ask important questions), my stomach has threatened to consume nearby vital organs. We must eat before we get back to New Orleans.
We must go to Chick-fil-A.
For those who live in the South, Chick-fil-A is somewhere between a necessary fact of life and an obsession. For those outside that particular bubble of reality, the chain's mystique can be confusing. The recent firestorm over gay marriage highlighted not just a cultural divide, but a culinary one for those who've never eaten at Chick-fil-A. The undercurrent to the controversy, often uttered by otherwise enlightened Yankees: "So why's it so great!? It's fast food, right? Just chicken sandwiches?"
Well, yes. Chick-fil-A is fast food. It's chicken sandwiches. There is, I'm sad to report, no parting of the clouds when I have Chick-fil-A, no culinary epiphany that shakes my belief system (I'm still pro-gay marriage despite today's lunch). The simple reality is this: these are EXCELLENT chicken sandwiches -- far, far better than any other fast food restaurant can deliver for a relative pittance. For anyone who grew up on McDonald's Chicken McNuggets made from mechanically separated chicken, Chick-fil-A is a wonder. It is fast, it's delicious, and -- as disciples can tell you -- it can blunt even the worst hangover, which is why so many object to it being closed on Sundays.
My spicy chicken deluxe sandwich is not wildly different than the regular spicy chicken sandwich, which, in turn, is not so flaming hot as Chick-fil-A ads would have you believe. In either case, the bun exists solely as a vehicle to keep your hands clean while you eat the chicken. The condiments (recently thawed tomatoes, unnecessary pickles) are mostly for show and add little to the flavor profile. Basically, everything is third fiddle to what Chick-fil-A excels at: unbelievably tender, moist chicken that is so lightly breaded I'm not sure the chain, despite a new Chicago location, can ever truly make inroads in the Midwest (seriously, Midwest: ease up on the breading).
This is not to say that Chick-fil-A only does chicken sandwiches well. The waffle fries are surprisingly light and walk the line perfectly between tender and crispy. The chicken nuggets are bite-sized pieces of perfection -- and the variety of sauces available for them shames any competitor. For dessert, a massive serving of Icedream® (ice milk, unless my childhood memories deceive me) costs just $1.19.
All of this is served to you by people who seem truly inspired by working in Chick-fil-A. "All right! My pleasure!" the manager said today, and he could have been almost any Chick-fil-A manager, his enthusiasm trickling down to everyone from the counter girl to the guy with the mop.
In that regard, Chick-fil-A is reminiscent of In-N-Out, another fast food cult that outsiders often fail to understand. The California chain employs fresh-faced teenagers to make hamburgers several cuts above the next fast food joint, and Chick-fil-A does the same with friendly Southerners and chicken. When I travel, no trip to California is complete without In-N-Out, and the same is true of the South and Chick-fil-A.
So to answer that Yankee's question: no, it isn't "just" fast food, it's a legitimate piece of Southern culture, and even representative of the region as a whole: there may be some opinions you don't agree with, but the charm and flavor are irresistible.