When I saw the following tweet yesterday afternoon in my Twitter feed from The Atlantic about Cracker Barrel, I was incredulous;
The Atlantic (@TheAtlantic). ” Why Cracker Barrel Isn’t as Hokey as You Think.” 2 March 2013, 4:30 p.m. Tweet.
My first thought was that things have gotten so bad for long-form narrative journalism that The Atlantic had decided to try to siphon off readers from The Onion. Then I clicked on the article link and realized that the writer, Emily Chertoff, was serious as a heart attack about extolling the virtues of Cracker Barrel, or as I now call it (based on my own experience that I’ll detail below), “a Crack in my Ass.”
For those of you who may not be familiar with the Cracker Barrel (their name is actually Cracker Barrel Old Country Store, Inc.) experience, or another pet descriptor that I’ve used that’s a tad less crass, “the Cracker Shack,” it is a ubiquitous chain of restaurants that you are likely to locate off many an interstate exit from Massachusetts to Florida, and points west. There is even a Cracker Shack in South Portland , which is sad because Maine had managed to remain free of this blemish on our landscape prior to 2011(?) , when a restaurant went in by the Maine Mall. Why? I guess because that area of consumer excess and chain store death needed to have one more bad chain restaurant to make it complete.
To my way of thinking, Cracker Barrel falls into that weird category of one-time experiences that you are kind of curious about—like being tasered—but are not overly anxious to take the plunge with. I mean, when you drive by one and you see wall-to-wall people stacked up on the faux porch ringing the restaurant, you think (in a delusional kind of way), “maybe the food’s not as bad as I imagine that it is,” or “maybe I’m just being too elitist to break my rule of not eating at horrific chain eateries littering exits up and down America’s happy motoring thoroughfares.”
Back in 2010, Miss Mary and I did what any committed parents would do when their son decides to hoof it across America; we loaded up my wife’s Rav 4 and headed to Texas to meet up with Mr. Everyday Yeah before he made it too far west for us to drive out to say “hi” and check on the condition of his feet and psyche.
We had our own Baumer family reunion when we met up with him in Sweetwater, Texas and the rest, as they say, is history. That includes our trek eastward, retracing his walk via US 80 and a Sunday night in July in Vicksburg, Mississippi.
That road trip was really quite magical. Mark made it to Santa Monica Beach in 81 days (after commencing his journey on Tybee Island, Georgia), a remarkable feat, especially given that the Arizona State Police were so intent on having him die in the Arizona desert. Thanks to angels along his route; elderly couple with a swimming pool and the stunt team from the Vin Diesel movie franchise, Fast Five; fortunately that didn’t happen, and our only son completed his epic journey of 2500 miles. Mom and Dad didn’t get a t-shirt, but we did get to experience our own two-week odyssey on the road. Given the state of roadside cuisine in America today, we were fortunate that the trip resulted in just two absolutely horrific meals; one at a Pizza Hut in Brownsville, Tennessee, and the other one was at the Cracker Barrel in Vicksburg. The following has been culled from an essay I wrote about the road trip that will be included in my new book, Seven: Essays and Stories (Vol. I), which I plan to have out in time for the summer reading season, on RiverVision Press. I also added a bit of material from my one-star review I wrote for Yelp.
We hit Vicksburg late Sunday afternoon. After crossing back over the Mississippi River, we pulled off at our first exit and found the visitors center. These highway stations for tourists had become a welcoming oasis for us along the trek. A restroom, running water, the chance to get out of the vehicle to stretch, get some blood flowing, and figure out where we planned to stay for the evening.
Our choice of hotels were generally of the two-star variety, but occasionally we got a three-star hotel. We found that the lower-end, budget variety hotel, if chosen carefully, were usually relatively clean, mainly quiet, and often had a free breakfast included, along with a pool. Being on the road for two weeks also meant that expense-wise, we couldn’t be racking up $200-per-night lodging charges.
The La Quinta in Vicksburg was newer and very clean. Unfortunately for us, hitting Vicksburg on a Sunday night meant all the better restaurants downtown were closed. Unlike back home in the North, when eating out on Sunday night is no big deal, the better restaurants in southern towns like Vicksburg, which I’d classify as “sleepy,” tend not to be open Sundays, which is probably due to the cultural deference to Sunday being the Lord’s Day.
As a result, we had to settle for the ubiquitous Cracker Barrel.
If you’ve ever ventured south of say, Massachusetts, you’ve probably seen the billboards for Cracker Barrel, or passed one sitting near an exit on one of America’s many interstate highways. Neither one of us had ever eaten at “The Cracker Shack” as I started calling it. Later, I’d change my moniker to “the crack in my ass.”
Maine has no Cracker Barrels and I hope it remains free of this barrel scourge. While the meal we had wasn’t the worst one on the trip it was definitely the second worst. Only our lukewarm, microwave quality pasta courtesy of Pizza Hut in Brownsville, TN the second night of the trip saved “The crack in my ass” from the distinction of being the worst. Still, I understood not every restaurant was going to be the best meal of my life. The road can be very hit or miss when it comes to food. Regardless of these few irritations on the trip, I continued to tell myself that we’re here because Mark got us out of the house and on the road. The sights and places experienced more than offset a bad meal here or there.
And then, from my review posted at Yelp (one star out of a possible 5):
We rolled into Vicksburg on a Sunday night on our two week road trip to Texas and across the South. Our plan was to tour Vicksburg Military Park the following morning.
Not a fan of chain restaurants, we had few other options, since all the locally-owned eateries downtown were closed. After being on the road since 8:00 in the morning, we were eager to have a hot meal and having seen the ubiquitous Cracker Barrel billboards from Pennsylvania, south, we thought we’d see what the hype was all about. The restaurant was like 500 yards from our hotel, which made it convenient. I now wish we hadn’t taken the Cracker Barrel plunge.
We waited in line behind a sea of rather large folks, many that seemed to be having some difficulty deciding where to sit. We perused the gift shop/country store while we waited. Personally, I don’t get what most Americans see in a bunch of junk and knick-knacks manufactured in China, and some other country that’s subsumed America’s former factory jobs that paid a living wage, but that’s just me.
We finally were called and seated, after waiting about 20 minutes. The waitress brought us some sweet tea, which was one of a host of Southern items I’d wanted to sample on our trip. It was ok, a bit overly sweet, but maybe that’s what sweet tea is supposed to be like.
I had the Chicken n’ Dumplings Platter. The entire dish arrived lukewarm at best, the dumplings disappointingly tasteless, and soggy. The sides, which in my case were the macoroni and cheese, fried okra, and turnip greens were all overcooked and limp.
My wife had the fried chicken (I think), and her experience wasn’t much better than mine.
Another annoyance was that when our food arrived, we had no silverware on the table to use to eat our rapidly cooling dishes. I looked around and the other patrons were using forks and knives, so I assumed that etiquette still prevailed at this chain eatery. No waitress was nearby, so I took off for the serving station and located two sets for my wife and me.
In hindsight, we both agreed it would have been better off grabbing a bite at a fast-food chicken joint, or even McD’s.
The remainder of our trip, I took to calling Cracker Barrel, “A crack in my ass.” I know it’s crude, but good lord, this place was just plain awful!!
That Cracker Barrel experience in Vicksburg cured Mary and I from ever desiring to darken a Cracker Barrel door again in our lives. We didn’t see much local authenticity, although it was hard to see much of anything given the girth of the diners lined up in front of us, as well as the others we were forced to step lightly to avoid, in order not to be pinned to the walls and crushed, while browsing the gift shop and its “authentic” American artifacts. As I indicated in my Yelp review, I didn’t see much in that tourist trap (I mean gift shop) that wasn’t manufactured in China.
I’m sure Ms. Chertoff is a fine writer. She apparently is a Harvard grad, although a Harvard degree doesn’t seem to hold the water that a Harvard degree used to, especially if you consider Cracker Barrel a barometer of American historical authenticity. Another blogger had a similar take on Cracker Barrel, finding it more “kitsch,” than authentic. The blogger also noticed the higher than normal obesity quotient.
Our tastes in food are subjective at best. My experience of Cracker Barrel as a restaurant is open to debate. Obviously, tens of thousands of fans exist that will hail their cuisine and peg me as overly-critical of my own restaurant experience in Vicksburg. One area I’m less open to debate about is that Cracker Barrel represents “authenticity.” Moxie is certainly a better representation of American nostalgia and an earlier time in our country than Cracker Barrel is, at least from my own perspective on the topic.
I’m sure that articles like this one are attempts by The Atlantic to write these kind of articles to pull in the hoi polloi—the non-elite, non-literary types that love the gruel that Cracker Barrel passes off as authentic American cuisine. It’s just a shame that someone with a four-year Harvard degree and clips from the Harvard Crimson isn’t tackling subjects that really matter, especially given the paucity of authentic long-form journalism being done in America, during its waning days of empire.
A better use of that Harvard pedigree, in my opinion, might be covering the industrial food movement in America, which has spawned an epidemic of sclerotic, morbidly obese Americans, the kind of people that flock to places like Cracker Barrel, as well as McDonalds, Burger King, Pizza Hut, Taco Bell….you get the picture, I think. It certainly would be better than writing advertorials for lousy, corporately-owned chain restaurants, masquerading as pieces about authentic Americana.