My lack of enthusiasm for haute cuisine and gastro-temples has been mentioned here before. I have even written about my penchant for diners and greasy spoons. Well I have yet another guilty pleasure when it comes to food.
I have a real affection for an American chain of restaurants called Cracker Barrel. You will find 590 of them next to major highways in almost the whole country, except the West Coast, Alaska and Hawaii. They are the American equivalent of Little Chef – indeed originally they sold petrol too, yet I find them strangely exciting, exotic even. If you have not visited one I would highly recommend the experience.
Firstly they do not claim to be restaurants, but ‘Old Country Stores’ and that sorts of sets the tone. The first thing you encounter is a display of white New England-style rocking chairs on the front porch. Customers can try them out or buy them – $129 in August 2010.
Going through the door you enter the most amazing Aladdin’s Cave of a shop that is merchandised in a wonderfully higgledy-piggledy way. It is bursting with items for Halloween (it seems there is nothing that cannot be improved by adding a pumpkin), country music CDs, DVDs of 1960s television shows, cookware, cookery ingredients, cards, American football and baseball outfits, old fashioned toys, scented candles, weird and wonderful foodstuffs and a vast array of sweets or candy from a bygone age.
Nostalgia is the thing here and upon entering the restaurant section you find the walls covered in faux memorabilia, much of which is very interesting to a Brit like me – it is how I think of America. Posters for patent medicines, long lost soda brands, unbreakable combs, hominy grits and flour compete for wall space with old photographs, football posters, ploughs, walking sticks, hoes and rifles.
I have never yet visited a Cracker Barrel that wasn’t bustling and full. They seem to be incredibly popular with all sections of society, even a surprising number of foodies – a bit like butterscotch flavour Angel Delight.
Which brings me to the only problem – the sheer amount of choice on their menu. On arriving at your table you are met by a bewildering array of fascinating foodstuffs. There is a vast all day breakfast selection and an equally mighty lunch and dinner range as well as separate special offerings and new lines – and I take quite a while making up my mind as it is!
What a menu it is too, full of things that I have never heard of or experienced before – what is ‘sawmill gravy‘, what are ‘collard greens‘, do people actually eat ‘turnip greens‘, why is macaroni n’ cheese in the vegetable selection and why does it only have one apostrophe?
The breakfast items that I have tried and enjoyed are; french toast (eggy bread to us Brits), pecan pancakes and blueberry pancakes. Much to my surprise I even found that I liked the maple syrup on the french toast and pancakes. Of course you then have to face choosing how your eggs will be cooked, what sort of bacon or ham, patty or link sausages, pork or turkey, smoked or not and then what sort of bread for your toast – it’s exhausting and, for me, mainly a matter of guesswork as I do not always understand the alternatives on offer.
With lunch or dinner you also receive your choice of Buttermilk Biscuits (like a savoury scone) or Corn Muffins (quite sweet like a slightly coarse Madeleine) – which if taken away can make an excellent breakfast the next morning. For dinner I have really enjoyed the excellent meatloaf, the fried chicken, the Country Fried Shrimp Platter with hushpuppies as well as the Country Fried Steak – which is a Chicken Fried Steak or schnitzel.
As you can see this is not what most people would call fine food, but it is pretty good quality for the money. Everything I have had there was enjoyable and tasty, even if it wasn’t exactly good for me.
In a very American way they do not serve any alcohol at all, so the diner is forced to fall back on soft drinks or even coffee – a surprising number of Americans seem to drink coffee with food, the mere idea of which makes me shudder. There is one fabulous drink on the menu though and I so wish I could get it over here – Raspberry Lemonade. Basically this is old fashioned non-fizzy lemonade with a whole load of fresh raspberries crushed into it – you can taste they are fresh – and it is utterly, utterly delicious.
I really enjoy visiting Cracker Barrel, I like everything about the experience and wish they had some restaurants in the UK. It would surely be more expensive, but worth it. I asked the manager of the branch in Fredericksburg Virginia why there weren’t any in the UK? She looked at me and said, ‘but that’s another country.’
Which perhaps is the attraction? Possibly to an American the Cracker Barrel offering is as mundane as a Happy Eater is to us – although they all seemed to be enjoying it the other day. It is possible that these things are only really exciting and different if you are foreign.