Sunday, December 23, 2012

How eating lunch inspired me to fire up the blog, or why Cracker Barrel is the 4th level of hell

Hey blog readers(assuming there are still some of you out there)! Long time no see, huh? I had a meal at Cracker Barrel today, and I felt the need reconnect. And no, that is not a non-sequitur.

I may be the only person in the state of Kentucky, nay, in the whole southern tier of the US, who does not like Cracker Barrel. A bold statement, but judging by the mass of humanity in any given franchise on any given day, I don’t think it’s hyperbole. In fact, I probably just lost half my audience to daydreams of grits, beans n greens, chicken-fried chicken, and a heaping portion of hash brown casserole.

For me, that’s no daydream. It’s a nightmare. The mere thought makes me want to eat a roll of tums and curl up on the couch in a what-have-I-done food coma.

You’re thinking that’s nice, weird, whatever, but so what? This is a free country. You are an adult with free will. No one is forcing you into that bastion of down-home country goodness.

(Cue whiny voice.)

Except people are forcing me, dammit! They totally are. Not in a twist-my-arm-behind-my-back, threaten-my-loved-ones kind of way (because, well, they are my loved ones), but in an exasperated, why-does-everyone-have-to-suffer-because-you-are-too-snobby-for-down-home-country-goodness kind of way.

I am not too snobby for down-home country goodness. I was raised on down-home country goodness. And Cracker Barrel is NOT down-home country goodness! Cracker Barrel is the commercialization of someone’s idea of what down-home country goodness should be. And holy cow has America bought into it!

My good friend, Linda, will not allow us to begin a girls’ weekend without breakfast at Cracker Barrel. She was raised in Connecticut by her British mother. And ironically, we leave Cracker Barrel and go straight to Starbucks so she can get an iced mocha. Yep, a bonafide, down-home girl, that Linda.

Even worse is my husband, Bruce. He loves Cracker Barrel with the devotion of a true zealot. Grits, greens, chicken n dumplins, cornbread, and OMG…Uncle Herschel’s breakfast…don’t even get him started. Sounds like a good ole boy, doesn’t he? Bruce was born on Staten Island and raised in a large city north of the Ohio River.

So maybe Cracker Barrel is the place where wannabe down-home country folks go to get the food they never had as a child? That would be a nice theory if real, down-home country folks didn’t like it so much, but they do like it. They really, really do.


I can picture my friends and neighbors out there shaking their heads, thinking, “Why do you hate it so much, Kathy? Geez, girlfriend, chill out.”

Okay…maybe I do need to chill out, but let me share. My husband got out of bed this morning and announced his intention to eat at Cracker Barrel. Normally, I would talk him out of it, and I’m pretty good at getting my way on this. He usually acquiesces because he doesn’t want to sit through a meal with a sullen, unhappy wife. I’m not proud of my attitude, but it is what it is. This morning, I made a half-hearted attempt. Something about how I could cook breakfast, blah, blah, blah. I didn’t really want to cook. Our youngest son was being a pain in the butt, and adding to his bad attitude didn’t seem reasonable, so I said, “Sure. Sounds good.”

Okay…I didn’t say that, but I did say something not sullen and unhappy, and I put the best possible foot forward given that Bruce was pissed at young son and I was smoothing the waters by consenting to eat at Cracker Barrel.

We drove past the long porch with its rustic, hundred-dollar rocking chairs and saw that the parking lot was completely full. We ended up in the back next to the dumpsters, and in the long hike to the door, we made small talk about the friend we had passed and mistaken for someone else because they were both so jowly. Really, I was mentally girding my loins.

Cracker Barrel on a random Tuesday night in April is not my favorite place, but on a Sunday morning two days before Christmas, it is the 4th level of hell. People were packed wall to wall in the “Old Country Store.”

Bruce weaved his way through the labyrinth of humanity and kitsch and put our name on the list. Ten to fifteen minutes they said. And in spite of the crush, they were true to their word. I am thankful for this because I only endured fifteen minutes wedged against a display containing Mickey Mouse Pez dispensers, giant Hershey’s kisses, toddler-sized fedoras (wtf??), and holiday sweatshirts containing snowy landscapes and the implicit message, “I stopped staying up past nine o’clock ten years ago.”

We saw people we knew. I could not talk to them because I was trapped between the aforementioned display and people blocking every possible path to my friends. Bruce moved a box on top of the display, so I could at least smile and wave. The only open path led into the dining room, Shangri-La if you judged by the sheer number of people trying to get in. If there had been a kitchen fire, I’d be dead right now.

When our name was called, we made our way into Shangri-La, squeezing sideways to get past the servers in the narrow aisles between tables. I can only assume the fire marshal has seen the number and configuration of tables and deemed the place safe, but damn! Seriously…just damn…

I shouted my drink order to our server over the din of plates clanking, children screaming, and voices raised in raucous conversation and opened my menu. Oh, the menu! A culinary ode to all that is breaded, fried, buttered, and sugared! They actually have an entrée called chicken-fried chicken. My grandmother was born, raised, and lived her whole life in the country on a farm, and she made the best chicken that was ever breaded and cooked up in boiling Crisco (the kind that came solid in a large can). She spared neither the breading nor the grease, and even then we just called it fried chicken. Chicken-fried chicken??? What is that?

I’ll never know. I ordered a grilled chicken salad with the extra-creamy buttermilk dressing on the side. I’m not a health food freak, but I refuse to consume 10,000 calories in an insanely heavy “down-home” meal when I have the option of consuming 10,000 calories in rich and wonderful Christmas treats.

I don’t remember what Bruce ordered, but it made him happy, and I was glad. The conversation turned from the aggravating 18 year-old to more pleasant subjects. A couple of friends stopped by the table to say hello and Merry Christmas. And on the way out, when a Stetson-wearing fellow with long gray hair and matching beard (think Gandalf meets Waylon Jennings) grabbed a pecan pie off the counter display, I realized I had a story for my poor, neglected blog. And that made me happy.

I left The Old Country Store with a smile. (Knowing I was off the Cracker Barrel hook for a while didn’t hurt either.)


  1. You need to exchange the Cracker Barrel for a Barrel full of Monkeys. Find a good soul kitchen in whatever part of Lexington boast the cheapest real estate and the whole family can be satisfied. Good food. Better "raucous conversation" to turn into blog fodder. And talk about about silencing the young 'uns. I personally like going to Swett's in Nashville on Sunday the best. Because some folks still believe in a good Sunday hat with their fried chicken.

    Don't neglect your blog. It keeps me informed. Much love and see you soon!

  2. We have a place like that in Lexington called Ritchie's, but it's carry-out only. Can't wait to see you!