A friend recently posted a great article about Cracker Barrel restaurants. It was a well written piece by a young man who ruminated on the sociology and political aspects of the national chain, noting that behind the hokey facade, the restaurant had once been far from the welcoming place that it now appears to be. He spoke of a time of innocence when he and his family traveled from Houston to the north stopping at every Cracker Barrel along their route, oblivious to the chain’s sometimes racist past. He wondered if he might have viewed the place in a different light had he always known that its founders from Tennessee had at one time perpetrated the Jim Crow policies of the past. I suppose that Cracker Barrel is one of those eateries that evinces different responses from different people. It may be viewed as a bastion of old time comfort food or a fat farm filled with dishes that defile the human body. Some may enjoy the quirky gift shop or laugh at it in disdain. Others may feel uncomfortable in an atmosphere that reminds them of a time in the south that wasn’t always kind to all people. I suspect that most people simply like the place for its rather reliable menu when traveling on the road and are blissfully unaware of any skeletons in its closet. For me it is a place that evokes fond memories of Friday nights with my mom.
As my mother grew older and more entrapped by her bipolar disorder she relied on me and my brothers for her outings. For well more than the last ten years of her life my Friday after work routine rarely varied. I drove from whichever school in which I was working straight to her home in southeast Houston. She was always ready to go when I arrived, often sitting on a bench on her front porch in anticipation of my arrival. As soon as I turned into her driveway her face would light up.
We always began our Friday night adventures with dinner. Mama often enjoyed trying new dining experiences but didn’t want to venture too far from her home so we tended to frequent the same places again and again. Without a doubt her favorite destination was the Cracker Barrel in League City. Hanging on to her old time Catholic roots she most often ordered catfish with a variety of vegetables. She relished the food and the service like a child, often lingering at the table long after her plate was empty. She viewed the meal as a grand and exciting event, but for her the best was yet to come.
Whenever we went to Cracker Barrel my mother insisted on spending time in the gift shop. She went from display table to display table delighting in the wares, sometimes finding gifts for her children and grandchildren. She loved that the ladies who worked there would wrap her presents for her. She saw this extra perk as a grand luxury that made her shopping even more special. She really was exactly like a kid in a candy shop on those occasions, so of course she also had to purchase a variety of sweets. The better the deal on the confections, the more likely she was to buy them. Her favorites were the jars of candy canes of different flavors that were six for one dollar.
There were some Fridays when Mama was not herself. Her bipolar disorder would be raging a bit, making her frightened and nervous. It took some nudging to get her to agree to leave her home for a bite to eat. I usually suggested Cracker Barrel for dining on those occasions because something about the place always made her feel better. She didn’t seem to think that anybody was going to hurt her or poison her when she was there. She behaved like a forgetful and confused old woman, sometimes becoming gruff when the employees didn’t understand what she wanted. Amazingly they always kept their composure and treated her with such dignity. I suppose that over the years they had grown to understand that sometimes she was not quite herself. They overlooked her disheveled appearance and wild-eyed expression and simply offered her kindness.
I suspect that Cracker Barrel reminded my mother of the happier times of her youth. The homestyle cooking was actually a luxury for her because she grew up in the Great Depression when food was often scarce. Her family never had the extra income to purchase gifts or items that were fun but not really necessary for survival. It always made my mother smile to know that she was able to purchase something that she didn’t really need from the array of fun merchandize in the store. So much of it reminded her of things that people had when she was a kid that were unavailable to her and her siblings. Eating at Cracker Barrel represented her arrival into better economic times.
My mom had been eagerly looking forward to my retirement party when she died the day before it was scheduled. We hurriedly canceled the affair because none of us were up to celebrating. When I later cleaned out her room I found a gift secreted away with a card indicating that it was for me. I recognized the brown paper wrapping that Cracker Barrel always used and I smiled at the thought that she had found something for me there. Inside was a tea towel embroidered with little bees and the words, “Life is a garden. Live it.” She had also included a little trinket box shaped like a bee hive.
I keep the tea towel hanging on a hook in my kitchen and the box holds stamps at my makeshift kitchen desk. They remind me of my sweet mother and often bring a silent smile to my face. I recall those many Fridays when we laughed and sometimes even cried, enjoying precious time together. To this very day I find real comfort whenever I eat at a Cracker Barrel.
Perhaps the Cracker Barrel restaurants are indeed a bit corny and may even hide secrets from a dark past, but for me, they have become more than just a place to sustain my hunger. I have come to see them as links to a very special time that my mother and I shared. My grandsons recently insisted that they wanted to go there when I gave them the choice of any restaurant. Since I am making a point of avoiding fattening foods I was a bit concerned but I found that their menu now includes lighter fare like baked chicken breast, steamed broccoli, and a salad of cucumbers and tomatoes. I laughed a bit at myself when I ordered from the healthy section because I knew that had my mother been there she would have insisted that I get what I really wanted, which was the pancake breakfast that my grandsons chose, rather than being so strict with myself. She certainly understood that life is short and that we must grab as much of it as we can.