Cracker Barrel

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Wendy Hodge

By WENDY HODGE

It’s amazing what you may find if you wait about a year and a half to clean out your purse. This past weekend, when I could no longer hoist the bag on my shoulder, I realized it was time to just get it done. And, oh, what I found — my strawberry watermelon chapstick I was sure the dog had eaten, about $23 in dimes (why are there never any quarters?) and a jar of baby food plums (don’t ask). But then, underneath a mound of (hopefully clean) Kleenex, jackpot — a Cracker Barrel gift card.

Tim and I stood at the kitchen counter and called the 800 number on the back to see if it was still a valid card. Anyone watching would have thought we were waiting on the verdict from an appraiser on some ancient artifact we had unearthed or that we were penniless and starving. Neither of these was true, but … I mean … it’s a Cracker Barrel gift card.

The automated voice told us we had $25 to spend, and just like that it was Christmas again. We planned a Sunday morning brunch, just the two of us. Off and on all weekend, one of us would say, “I’m excited about our Cracker Barrel date.” The other would usually respond with a “Me, too” or a grin and glazed over eyes. Cracker Barrel biscuits have that power — they can make you grin before you ever actually eat a single bite. 

Sunday morning was one of those cold clear winter mornings that make you inhale deeply and just breathe in nature.  We pulled into the parking lot, which was already filling up, and made our way to the seating hostess. Along the way, I had just enough time to glance at the rows of vintage cookbooks and the stack of pecan log rolls. I coveted both, equally.

We were taken directly to a table in front of a window with a perfect view of the entire restaurant. I couldn’t have picked a better spot to people watch.

We perused the menu, toying with the idea of the healthy yogurt parfait breakfast. But that was a flat-out lie that we occasionally tell ourselves before deciding on the same breakfast we always order. Tim gets Uncle Hershel’s Favorite, and I opt for the Sunrise Sampler. I can already taste the bacon.

Our waitress has only one star on her Cracker Barrel apron. She is new. God bless her. Before we can confuse her too much with our order, another waitress steps in to help. She is an older woman  and she has five stars on her apron. We are in good hands. Her name is Wanda, and she calls me “sweetie.” She calls Tim “sugar” and winks at him. He straightens in his chair the way most men do when an older woman flirts a bit. I grin behind my menu, enjoying the moment.

Wanda bustles toward the kitchen, the younger waitress trailing behind her. I know that feeling — new at a job and trying so hard to catch on, to fit in. She’s going to get a massive tip, bless her heart.

Tim and I smile at each other and glance around, both aware that something is missing. Finally it dawns on me — there’s no peg game on the table. Say it ain’t so!

“Covid, I guess?” shrugging my shoulders.

“I bet that’s it,” Tim answers. And we sit there shaking our heads at the loss of something so … timeless.

“You know they serve alcohol now,” Tim said.

“Oh, that’s right. I did hear that,” I respond.

And again we shake our heads. Something about that just doesn’t sit right. Cracker Barrel serving alcohol feels a bit … off. It’s like going to Grandma’s house and being told there are cigarettes for everyone instead of dessert after dinner. Smoke if you like, but don’t expect Grandma to buy a pack for you.

Something else is missing — there’s no jumbo checker game set up for everyone to enjoy. Covid strikes again.

“I don’t like change. You know this about me,” I lean toward Tim to speak.

“I’m aware,” he smiles as he answers.

“Just look at this place, though,” Tim’s gaze travels around the room. “I bet the stuff hanging on the walls hasn’t been touched in decades.”

Every available inch is covered with metal signs bearing vintage advertisements, shelves with ancient cast iron skillets and rolling pins, deer heads, antique rifles and even a red Radio Flyer wagon mounted above the oversized open hearth fireplace.

“Cracker Barrel will always be Cracker Barrel.” And I realize he’s right.

You can walk into any Cracker Barrel anywhere, and the tables and chairs will be exactly the same. The menu will not waver. There will always be old-fashioned hard candy and salt water taffy, Malo Cups and Moon Pies, and dozens of relishes and pickled vegetables.

There will be the obligatory rack of cheap jewelry and football memorabilia. Baby clothes and ladies’ sweaters will be found in close proximity to the children’s toys and books. And right next to the check-out counter you can inevitably find a rack of audio books for rent to keep you company until you stop at the next Cracker Barrel down the road.

Even the people seated at other tables, as unique as they all may be, are the same crowd who’s always at Cracker Barrel on Sunday morning … salt of the earth, hard-working folks who enjoy a meat and three or pancakes and eggs before church service.

I once tried to describe Cracker Barrel to a friend of mine who is native Australian. He’s never been to America, and I was telling him about all things we hold scared. Of course, Cracker Barrel was on the list. I went into detail about the items hanging on the wall and for sale in the store.

“So, it’s a thrift store?” he asked.

“Well, no,” I answered.

“A rummage sale, then?”

“Um. No. It’s a restaurant.”

“You mean, you eat surrounded by someone’s old junk?”

“Yes.”

“And it’s all hanging on the walls — over the tables?”

“Well … yeah.”

He may never come to America now.

Our food arrives — all nine plates of it. Eggs and grits and bacon and country fried steak and more bacon and fried apples and hash brown casserole … and biscuits. We dive in and only stop when we’re groaning, uncomfortable in our now-tight pants. Then we both sigh. You know that sigh? It’s the contented exhalation that always comes when you have eaten well.

I reach out and take Tim’s hand and smile at him. “Thank you for this,” I tell him. “I love this place.”

“Me too,” he answers.

As we pay at the counter (I left a tip far beyond the customary 15% so that maybe the new waitress will go home feeling like returning to work and earning another star on her apron), I smile to myself. We’ll be back again, and Cracker Barrel will still be the way we left it, despite the few changes the world has brought to its door. Maybe next time I’ll even order a mimosa.

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