NORTHRIDGE, Calif. -- The sandwich that may swing the U.S. presidency gives you 430 calories for $3.29. It's a deep-fried chunk of bird-breast on a bun, garnished with lettuce and creamy sauce, the signature of a chain of fast-food restaurants that you can't find in Canada that calls itself Chick-fil-A.
Vacationing on the far coast from Washington, and up before dawn as always, I am digging into my yogurt parfait with crunchy granola topping at 6:30 in the smoggy morning when a dozen star-spangled patriots from across the San Fernando Valley position themselves and their "Don't Tread On Me" flags on the sidewalk outside my table and immediately are set upon by television and radio babes and babblers from KCBS, KNBC, KCAL, KNBA, KNX, and KTLA.
"Beep your horn for liberty!" one of the chicks in the phalanx cries.
Why are all of us here this morning when we could be at the beach? The answer entwines religion, politics, pride and poultry in a patently American way.
A few weeks ago, a radio interviewer asked the CEO of Chick-fil-A for his views on same-sex unions and he replied that he thought that "we are inviting God's judgment on our nation when we shake our fist at Him and say We know better than You what constitutes a marriage."
This provoked a flame-broiled reaction from many gays and lesbians and from the professional left, including the mayor of San Francisco, who noted happily that none of the chain's franchises stands within 60 kilometres of Castro Street and added, rather menacingly, "I strongly recommend that they not try to come any closer."
A man in Washington summed up the whole tempest by standing near a mobile Chick-fil-A lunch wagon with a sign that said "My boyfriend used to love your waffle fries."
The Right-of-Romney crowd then declared the Aug. 1 to be National Chick-fil-A Appreciation day, to be followed by National Same-Sex Kiss-In Day in front of the same locations on Friday, to be followed by a presidential election on Nov. 6 in which the marital rights of homosexuals figures to be a major, and perhaps the deciding, issue.
"I do not want establishments in my city that hold such discriminatory views," raged the married gay woman who is likely to be the next mayor of New York.
"I urge you to back out of your plans to locate in Boston," fumed the mayor of Beantown.
"Chick-fil-A's values are not Chicago values," ranted Rahm Emmanuel, the Windy City's new boss.
"Help us to fight for traditional values and eat chicken at the same time," countered Rick Santorum, the charismatic conservative who nearly claimed the Republican nomination.
All of which explains why a man named Richard McEnroe -- no relation to the famous tennis crybaby and commentator -- is standing in the sunrise outside the Northridge chicken shack and telling me, "As long as they leave the chicken cutlet alone, they can kiss whatever they want."
"It's not about gays per se," McEnroe declares. "It's about bullying."
"How would liberals feel if mayors outlawed Ben and Jerry's because of their political positions?" demanded another voice in the throng.
Indeed, the Vermont ice creamers once named a flavour "Hubby Hubby" and put a cartoon of two married dudes right on the carton.
In Northridge, the "Appreciators" stand in the haze and wiggle their signs and munch on chicken and biscuits. I move on to another location in the town of Redlands and find the franchise overloaded with eager diners of all races and colours an hour before noon.
Inside are posters extolling the company's commitment to "casting a deeper vision for marriage" and providing "stable, loving homes to hundreds of foster children," a donation box for the Children's Hunger Fund, and a quotation from the founder (and father of the current, controversial CEO): "Food Is Essential To Life; Therefore, Make It Good."
Outside, I speak with a half-dozen customers. All of them aver that they have chosen Chick-fil-A for today's lunch not from an anti-gay bias, but to demonstrate their bedrock commitment to freedom of speech. One is a woman named Jennifer Miller, a claims officer for an insurance company from the mellifluous suburb of Rancho Cucamonga.
"I support them because I support their right to choose what they support," Miller says. "But I also believe in gay marriage. Everybody's looking for a scapegoat. Chick-fil-A has always been open about their Christian beliefs. The executives all talk about how they are still married to their first wives and all. But I do wish they were open on Sunday."
She quotes her first, current, and only husband: "You can't change a Christian's belief, any more than you can make a gay person straight."
"Are YOU a Christian?" I ask her.
"I'm not anything," Miller replies. "I have my own beliefs, just like Chick-fil-A does."
She tells me that she is a "strong conservative," and that she is eager to vote in November for "anyone but Obama." But this does not mean that every American has to swallow the Bible on a bun.
"So many children are abused by so-called 'traditional' parents," Jennifer Miller says. "But then you see gay couples raising good kids, or Sandra Bullock adopting a child on her own. For me, it all boils down to one thing. It all boils down to love."
Allen Abel is a Brooklyn-born Canadian journalist based in Washington, D.C.