I know, I’m starting to get tired of this Chick-fil-A discussion, too. Believe me, Will and I have both Tumbled and Tweeted about it, and watched plenty of YouTube videos about it. I, personally have written a piece on this site about it, and have made a video ranting about the whole controversy. Since making that rant last week, I’ve pretty much spoken my peace on the entire issue, and I’ve been making it a point to stop enabling people who want to keep talking about it and beat a dead horse. Thus, when I came across a Time: Ideas op-ed piece entitled “Take Hate Off the Plate”, I must admit that my first instinct was simply to gloss over it. But I then saw that it was written by a friend of ours, Chef Art Smith. So I decided to give it a shot and hope that it would give me some sort of perspective I hadn’t encountered already.
I’ve both worked under and hung out with Art, and the first thing you should know about him is that he has an incredibly low tolerance for bullshit. I can definitely say that, from my perspective, that’s one of the reasons why he and I hit it off so well when we met (well that, and he seemed to appreciate my dry, crass sense of humor). When I was cater-waiting underneath him, he was not afraid to fire a server on the spot for “auctioning off entrees” (you were expected to remember your table’s orders). When I was talking with him, he was not afraid to call you on your bluff, or smack your shoulder for being cheeky. He has a sharp wit that’s been hardened by years of fine dining work in plenty of big cities. Oh, and in addition to being a fabulous veteran gay, he’s worked hand-in-hand with gay deities like Oprah and Lady Gaga. Thus, I knew that, even if he spouted the same anti-Chick-fil-A talking points that every other activist has already, he would at least do so with a sharp-witted charm straight out of Steel Magnolias. Luckily, not only did Art deliver his personal brand of southern sass, but he did succeed in making a point that I hadn’t heard before.
When I say that Art came from a down-home southern upbringing, you don’t have to just take my word for it. He is kind enough to give us a window into it himself. He paints a quick portrait of his African-American nanny cooking buttermilk-fried-chicken, and he uses said portrait as a way of enhancing a very convincing point:
“Mr. Cathy owns more than 1,500 restaurants and serves up far more fried chicken than I do in my four. But I’ll say this: no matter how big the kitchen or seasoned the chef, hate has no place on America’s plates. Food is meant to be made with love, and that’s something I have understood since before I could reach the stove.”
I may not have been raised in the South. I may not have been fed a steady diet of fried chicken throughout my childhood. However, I can definitely say that my Cuban immigrant family would definitely agree. Food (and perhaps a tad bit of alcohol) is one of the biggest things that my family bonded over, both nuclear and extended. At our tables, electronics were turned off, phones were left to answering machines, and everyone was expected to share and participate in conversation in between bites and sips. Conversation would often turn to disagreement, especially in a room with such strong opinions and convictions (read: “Latin temperaments”). Point is, we were all still gathered around the table, and we still loved each other. More importantly, while we may have had our opinions, the food didn’t. It was simply there to spread love. To quote from Art’s piece: “fried chicken doesn’t take sides”. Neither does lechon asado or congri or platanos maduros.
This got me thinking about the day I first met Art. He was the head chef catering a banquet that I was working. The banquet was for Florida’s newly-elected governor, Rick Scott—a man whom I detest both politically and personally. So, of course, fate would have the irony to assign me to wait his table. So I was forced for the next couple of hours to stifle my vomit and put on my nicest façade on while I brought him and his family course after course. It pained me to watch the pan-cooked salmon with roasted potatoes and hearts-of-palm salad in front of his eager and awaiting trap, and I would have given anything to be able to taint said food beforehand (I was being watched too closely the entire time). Nevertheless, I maintained my best behavior and brought the food out promptly with as many manners as I could muster. At the end of the afternoon, he was so pleased that he insisted on shaking my hand. My smile could have bitten through steel. It was all I could do to keep myself from screaming “YOU JUST GOT SERVED BY A BUNCH OF FAGS, YOU IDIOTIC, BIGOTED PRICK!!!”
I went to talk with Art after the event, and I had to know how he could stand such a detestable human being. He was tweeting at the time, and barely looked up from his phone. He just shrugged. “Look they were willing to pay me, so the best thing that can happen is that they love my food so much that they keep asking me back. Besides, I’m doing this as a favor to the Bush family…” At first, it seemed brilliant. It was the epitome of what people in the South call “Nice Nasty”. Put simply: the more you hate someone, the more you make it a point to be nice to them. Sort of kin to a “keep your enemies closer” type of idea. Besides, he was taking money out of conservative pocket, and sticking it into his own big gay pocket. In retrospect, though, after reading his piece, I feel like his motives that day were a bit more enlightened.
You know that whole saying “fight fire with fire”? I feel like it’s completely idiotic. It makes more sense to fight fire with water. Similarly, what sort of idiotic notion is it to fight hate with more hate? You don’t. You fight hate with love. Chef Art could have refused to cater the banquet. I could have chosen not to serve him. Or worse yet, either or both of us could have tried to publicly humiliate him in some way…but we didn’t. We prepared hors d’oeuvres and salads and entrees and desserts and served them all with a smile and a handshake. Because of that, Gov. Scott didn’t walk away thinking, “Gosh, those queers were such dirtbags”. Instead, he walked away thinking “Wow, those queers really did a great job”. That thought might just soften his negative attitude towards gay people, and help him see us more as people. It’s not a guarantee, but it is guaranteed to work better than any yelling or screaming or name-calling.
So I’d like to personally thank Art for reminding me of a lesson that I too-often forget when I debate gay rights. It’s extremely difficult to look people in the eye who don’t recognize your dignity as a human being and be courteous. Too often, we let ourselves descend into the hateful behavioral patterns of our adversaries, instead of taking the proverbial high road like we should. I often forget that one of the main reasons why Will and I do our daily videos is so that we can invite bigots into our home and show them our humanity…and it’s working. If I may borrow another Southern expression: “you catch more flies with honey”.
Oh, and if you’re still reading this, Art, be sure to give us a call if you’re ever in town. We can get together with Lagran and Ben and shoot the shit over some good food. Will and I will bring the wine.