Take Hate off the Plate

A renowned chef (and fried-chicken fan) responds to Chick-fil-A's opposition to gay marriage

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Phil Skinner / Atlanta Journal-Constitution / AP

Jim Fortier, left, and Mark Toomajian kiss as they join gay-rights activists and others protesting outside a Chick-fil-A restaurant in Decatur, Ga., on Aug. 3, 2012

Recently, Chick-fil-A CEO Dan Cathy had some unkind things to say about gay families, and a lot of people (present company included) didn’t care for his comments one bit. That shouldn’t surprise you: I’m a gay man, I’m married, I’m from the South — raised in a Southern Baptist family — and I’m a chef. So an Atlanta-based fast-food baron talking about how he understands the Bible enough to say that my life and marriage aren’t legitimate doesn’t sit well with me.

A lot troubles me about this debate, but beyond the cherry-picking of Scripture to reinforce bigotry or the message that hateful rhetoric sends to young LGBT kids, there’s an element of this discussion that cuts away at a something I’ve held dear my whole life: the ability of food to bring people together. It’s a sad state when “comfort food” tears communities apart, making so many people feel attacked and unwanted.

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Here’s perhaps what makes me the most uncomfortable: 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.

My earliest memory of this quintessential Southern comfort food is of being a young child, watching my African-American nanny, Leila Curry, making her buttermilk fried chicken for us. She taught me not only how to make her chicken, but she also taught me — long before I ever knew I would need to — how to stand up to prejudice. It was the 1960s and racism was rampant in the South. When I saw race riots on the TV and asked her what was going on, she would tell me, “Honey, people just need to love each other.” During those days in the kitchen with her, Leila was the first person in my life who really taught me about the power of love over hate. To me, cooking was love and the kitchen is where I learned about equality.

When I was bullied as a teen, Leila, along with my grandmother and mother, tried to protect me from a world that was unfriendly to gay people. The words of Mr. Cathy remind me of the pain I felt that drove me to escape a small Southern town and find a place where I would be welcomed.

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The wisdom of those savvy Southern women rang even more true as I grew as a chef. I’ve fried up my chicken for Republicans and Democrats, cooked for the Bushes, the Clintons and the Obamas. Leila’s words were right: good food (and yes, especially fried chicken) takes no sides. It’s a celebratory meal, one for special occasions. (Believe me, I didn’t lose 120 lb. by eating fried chicken every day.) Done right and served with love, it will make even the fussiest calorie-counting crowd melt like butter on a hot biscuit. I proved that myself when I served fried chicken to hundreds of guests at Oprah Winfrey’s 50th birthday party.

Being Ms. Winfrey’s chef opened a lot of doors for me, but none more important than a hospital door. While so many gay couples in America are denied basic rights like hospital visitation, I was able to visit my future husband, Jesus Salgueiro, when he was undergoing his third round of cancer treatment. It’s sad to think that in so many parts of this country, you’ve got to know Oprah to see your soul mate in a hospital.

With the good fortune my cooking has brought us, we have tried to do good in the world. Jesus and I founded Common Threads, a nonprofit group that teaches kids in low-income communities how to prepare healthy and delicious food. We also share with them what my mother and Leila taught me: to love and respect others. I can’t tell Mr. Cathy his business, but I’d like to suggest that he take the hate off the plate.

Marriage equality is happening and anti-equality legislation will soon be written only in the history books along with Jim Crow laws. The work we do now is cooking up a more just, loving world for the next generation, a generation that embraces two of the most important things in my life — marriage equality and great food — and there’s no room for hate in either.

MORE: Jon Meacham: God and Gays