Cracker Barrel: Memories of an America yet to be

I was visiting a whip maker friend of mine in Middletown, Ohio who is working on a special project for me. It was Sunday around lunch time and we were early. So my wife and I elected to stop by the local Cracker Barrel for a late breakfast. Many people find it humorous that I often refer to Cracker Barrel as fine dinning, because for me it is. Now I have dined in many great restaurants, but I prefer Cracker Barrel, especially on a long trip because of the country setting and general store. The food and service to my experience has always been great and I love the “old west” feel of them when I step inside.image

My very first exposure to a Cracker Barrel was in Northern Kentucky. My grandfather who was the son of an active moonshiner from the sticks of coal country invited me as a very young boy to go shooting with the men in the family at his childhood home. His father at the time had long been dead, but as a boy he ran the hills from the law smuggling moonshine during prohibition. Their home was about the size of a modern bedroom and it was back in a valley about 30 miles northwest of Buckhorn Lake—a pretty remote location, especially when I was a kid. Back then there wasn’t much development between Lexington and Cincinnati, so if you didn’t gas up in Northern Kentucky, you might run out of fuel before Lexington. It was winter and I rode in the back of a pickup truck with some older cousins, some of whom were already men. I was by far the youngest. It was the day after Christmas and all the men were going shooting. It was my first time firing powerful weapons like a .38 special and a 30-30 rifle.

Cracker Barrel had one of their very first national stores in Northern Kentucky and it looked a lot like they do now. It was 6 AM, the sun wouldn’t be up for at least another hour and it was cold. We were all dressed in gun holsters, long hunting knives and day packs when we stepped inside to have some breakfast next to a roaring fireplace. It set in my mind for life a love for the place. It was the nearest thing I’d ever get to an authentic cowboy experience, wandering in off the open range, armed to the teeth to stop into a saloon/general store for some grub. It was a testosterone driven occurrence that shaped me for life. The waitress and manager could have turned us away at the door because we looked like we were there to rob a bank. I have worn a cowboy hat since I was in the fourth grade, so I had mine on feeling like a western drifter—and I loved the feeling as snow rushed in behind us as we stepped inside. They could have told us to leave the guns and packs in our car, but instead they asked if we wanted coffee next to a roaring fire. Years later when I saw the Clint Eastwood western The Unforgiven, the first saloon scene reminded me explicitly of that moment in my time—and it stayed with me forever. That was America. Cracker Barrel for me would always represent the best that America had to offer.

Most of the people on that shooting trip with me are dead now. Some died of old age, some from not meeting high expectations in life, some by personal destructive behavior. I could see much of it back then on that shooting trip. In the back of that truck where it was so cold ice formed on our noses, the older men passed around a whiskey flask. They offered it to me even though I was way too young to drink it. I turned it down. And if you traced their lives with mine and noticed how far apart they are now, you could trace it back to those types of decisions on a shooting trip on a cold December morning. They looked down at me a bit for not wanting to share the whisky, but my grandfather thought it took guts, which is all I really cared about. Once we started shooting, nobody thought anything about who drank what, or who said a curse word. Guns made all men equal and respect was derived by that realization. When I showed I could fire the 30-30 without being knocked down due to my small stature there was respect, and I would carry that lesson with me for life. The whole experience started with a Cracker Barrel.

My wife had never been to such a place as a Cracker Barrel before meeting me. But we went to one just north of Knoxville on our honeymoon as we traveled back from Gatlinburg. For her it summed up everything we had experienced on our first days together as a married couple and she fell in love with it for life. For years we would take our children there while vacationing and make a big deal about each visit, no matter where we were. One time we were on our way to a Star Wars convention in Indianapolis and my kids were dressed up as Jedi. We stopped at one about 45 minutes outside of Indianapolis. My kids had the experience I had as a young man, stepping in dressed as warriors. They had some unique looks, but everyone was friendly and it was a fun experience. They never forgot it. Then there was a time while traveling by motorcycle to a film festival in northern Ohio. My oldest daughter had never ridden a motorcycle before and this was her first experience—on a long road trip up north. Cracker Barrel just north of Columbus on an early summer morning in the middle of the week was an oasis of pleasure—a cozy place that always said “home” as you step into its doors.

One thing about Cracker Barrels is that they are almost always busy, especially in the noon time hours. People are often willing to wait for 30 minutes to get something they could get at McDonald’s in a fraction of the time. The reason is that most people have a special relationship to Cracker Barrel similar to mine. The restaurant chain has built their brand around American tradition for decades and people respect it enough to wait.   That was the situation my wife and I found ourselves in on a Sunday afternoon in late August, 2015, before we met on business with our whip making friend David Crain for a “special project.”

I have been thinking about guns a lot these days. The Obama administration has caused great unrest and unsettled the most rational by unleashing the insane, corrupt, and perpetually dependent to collect what the president promised during his campaigns, redistributed wealth in trade for a vote. And the results have been menacing. Police are being executed all around the country. Border violence is disturbingly common. And religious fanatics are going on holy wars against infidels with the apparent support of the American media. Long gone are the days of the Saturday morning westerns, and heroes of tradition. Those wonderful attributes are missing during our nightly news, but they are quite alive and flourishing at Cracker Barrel’s across the country, and that is what my wife and I were seeking.

As I waited for my breakfast I looked around the room at all the unique paraphernalia that they customarily have lining the walls. Most of it looked like the kind of items you might find at garage sales, but typically they speak of traditional American items, old Coke signs, early gas station markers, looms, spindles, scrubbing boards. However on this particular visit, I noted how many guns were displayed on the wall. Above my head was a Winchester lever-action and around the dining room where several musket style weapons from what looked like the pre-Civil War period. Then my attention was pulled toward an advertisement from perhaps the 50s from a drink called NEHI. It said, “What’s getting into kids these days.” Around the picture of a girl drinking what looked to be a healthy beverage alternative were kids playing. Of note was one kid dressed as a frontiersman another as a cowboy complete with a six-gun. Then another picture was of an Indian. It reminded me of the days when kids actually played cowboys and Indians and it wasn’t considered an act of insanity requiring counseling at school for wanting to play with weapons. I realized looking at that picture that the magic of Cracker Barrel was essentially represented in that picture. The family restaurant was a timeless portrayal of the type of America that many in the core of the country still love, and desire desperately to behold. That’s why many of the customers on a Sunday afternoon after church were willing to wait up to an hour to have some eggs and bacon—something they could easily get at home. But what they couldn’t get was the essence of Americana that Cracker Barrel truly is—and will always remain.

The meeting with the whip maker David Crain went well. He is very crafty and during our business dealing he showed me a little side project he was working on. He had been using his wood lathe to make some really marvelous wooden ink pens, the kind of items you might find at Kenwood Mall for $55. He sells them for $20 dollars, which I think is too cheap, but it’s his business. So I picked one up, since that kind of thing is sometimes important to me. If anybody else wants some, let me know and I’ll put you in touch with him. It’s a really good deal. Meeting with David reminds me of the kind of Americans we used to be. Behind his house David has a wood shop, and in it he makes lots of really neat crafts—the kind of things that will probably someday be on the wall of a Cracker Barrel. But with David, we are living tradition in the present, and that made that particular Sunday one that I will not long forget. It was a reminder of what we fight for and why. Much of it can be summed up in the advertisement by NEHL from a time long forgotten–except on the wall of a Cracker Barrel in Middletown, Ohio looming over eggs, bacon, and good memories.

Rich Hoffman


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