Combo number one: the damp, steamy sandwich, unadorned save for a couple of limp pickle slices; the waffle fries that need salt and get chewy as they cool; the Coca-Cola in the ozone-eating Styrofoam cup.
For years, Chick-fil-A was a guilty pleasure for my family, its Southern-fried promise calling to us during road trips and at the mall. My son -- born and raised in Atlanta, home of the corporate HQ -- graduated from four to six to eight to, finally, 12 chicken nuggets (which, these days, would still not come close).
Even before company president Dan Cathy came out publicly against gay marriage in July, we knew, deep down, that no self-respecting two-mom family had any business eating there. We were uneasily aware that the openly Christian company was probably supporting organizations with the word "family" (and not ours) in their names. Oh, hell -- we were consumers in self-indulgent denial, allowing the temptation of chicken biscuits to cloud our judgment. I mean, what part of "Closed on Sundays" did we not understand?
We get it now, I promise. I have eaten my last combo number one.
But there's something about our personal history with Chick-fil-A that eases my conscience with a comfort as cold as hour-old waffle fries, and that is this: For a year, we ate there for free.
One of our good friends is a helicopter pilot, and a few years ago she landed a promotional gig with a local Chick-fil-A. She was hired to fly a helicopter and hover over a field across the street from the restaurant while a public relations representative tossed little stuffed cows, specially equipped with parachutes, out the side. The highlight of the customer appreciation event was that one of the cows would plummet to earth with a year's worth of Chick-fil-A coupons attached. As it happened, there was room for my partner in the helicopter, so she joined the stunt team to help drop the cows, which she thought sounded like fun.
Personally, I have always found it disturbing and creepy that Chick-fil-A's most popular ad campaign is built around anthropomorphized farm animals who are craftily angling to not be slaughtered and eaten by coaxing customers to eat another kind of animal instead. Nonetheless, there was a carnival atmosphere at the designated restaurant on the evening of the "cow drop," where of course I took my son -- he was about 8 at the time -- and one of his friends to enjoy the show.
Chick-fil-A employees in red shirts cheerfully herded the sizable crowd as excitement mounted and, eventually, the unmistakable whir of a helicopter approaching whipped the enthusiasm to a fever pitch. My son and his friend joined the action on the field as black-and-white cows began to rain down, just a smattering at first, then a steady downpour. Our pilot friend held the helicopter impressively steady and low enough that we thought we could see my partner's arm waving to us, in between shaking hundreds of cows out of giant plastic bags. People fanned out around the field, pouncing on the plush bovines like kids at an Easter egg hunt.
And then it happened: My kid, completely by chance, was holding a cow dressed in a red Santa suit -- the prize cow. Next thing I knew, we were enveloped in red shirts, handshakes, and congratulations, and formally presented with 52 combo meal coupons bound by a rubber band: a whole year's worth of Chick-fil-A.
Any good PR stunt calls for video, and the company executives deftly assembled us in front of a camera to capture our reaction. They could not have hoped for a more willing participant than my son, who was absolutely bursting with excitement, literally jumping up and down and yelling things like, "The prize cow! Free chicken nuggets for a year!" The restaurant employees were beaming: Now this was customer appreciation.
Then, utterly transported by the moment, my kid pointed to the sky and shouted happily, "Oh, and you know what? My other mom was in the helicopter!"
I have never been certain whether the cloud that swept over the faces of the Chick-fil-A staff was because they believed their cow drop had somehow been rigged (and for the record, it had not), or because their ecstatic prize winner turned out to have an extra mom. I have my suspicions, of course, but I guess I'll never really know.
What I do know is that we never saw the video from the night of the great cow drop. And that for one whole year, my family ate Chick-fil-A guilt-free.