Ancestral Memories from the Local Cracker Barrel

I don’t tend to realize how Southern I am until I visit the vast Yankee territories and find their food and their demeanor mostly unappealing. But many of my friends both in the U.S. and abroad have no issue citing me as a Southern belle and Southern gentleman and despite me being African American, I have no issue saying that I am proudly Southern. It is true, the heritage of the South is not one of hatred, just most of it was built on the foundation of hatred. But to me the values of what it means to be Southern: respectful of elders, fiercely loyal to friends, self-reliant but still courteous and kind and generous and giving are all very important to me. For me, being Southern is a two-fold thing: it’s in personality and mannerisms and in culture and in food.

The personality of most Southerners is a loving mix of condescension and genuine concern. “Bless your heart” is a damning condemnation of a grave misjustice that sounds to the untrained ear a real expression of concern. Southerners are very concerned about contradictory things. During my childhood, I was simultaneously told that I wasn’t eating enough but the same people who had no issue calling me fat. I was told that I had no reason to rush into marriage while also being told that if I didn’t hop on that, I’d likely die alone.

Stuck in time. That’s the best way I can describe many concerns of the average Southern family. It’s as if things stopped in the 1950s sans some of the racism.

But that brings us to Southern hospitality and food. I will begin by telling a story. A friend of mine was staying with me for a small anime convention here in San Antonio. I woke up early to press my costume and in the time it took for him to wake up: I made homemade cinnamon rolls, made coffee for him with two kinds of creamer (I like hazelnut and he liked vanilla), pressed my costume and prepped a cocktail for the two of us. He woke up to the scent of brewing coffee and cinnamon rolls. Not to the sound of me faffing around the kitchen. The scent of coffee and cinnamon rolls. That is Southern hospitality. Honestly, we could have an entire other blog post on Southern food so I’ll start with a brief primer: Southern food is not about health, it’s about comfort. It should feel like a warm hug from the Lord. It’s rich, it’s buttery, it’s fatty and salty and sweet and most importantly: it’s about family. There are no small portions in Southern food, each meal is for a minimum family of four. That emphasis on family is what lead me to write this post.

As of now, I am painfully single while being painfully Southern. I love cooking for people and the deal is sweetened by me occasionally getting to eat what I make. There have been plenty a Thanksgiving where I cook for hours only to eat mac and cheese and buttered rolls in the kitchen washed down with copious amounts of wine and human misery. I cook to feed people, not to feed myself. That followed me into college where I found myself not cooking to feed myself, I was cooking to feed my kouhai, my friends, my partner and more. This got worse when I graduated and lived on my own. When I lost my long-term partners, I lost a reason to cook entirely. There is no making fried chicken for one. There is no amount of mac and cheese that can mend a broken heart and no amount of mashed potatoes that made me feel like I was home again.

Which brings us to Cracker Barrel. Ah, yes. The Cracker Barrel. The bastion of silly Southern stereotypes. Cracker Barrel is everything Yankees think the South is. Think of it as the Dolly Parton Southern Experience of food. And while I should hate it for continuing to perpetuate a level of  ethnic erasure of Southern culture and Southern food: I don’t hate Cracker Barrel.

Let me rephrase that: I love Cracker Barrel. When my mother passed away and my family had to call everyone and announce her death, we did so at Cracker Barrel. Sundays after church? Cracker Barrel. Extended family in town? Cracker Barrel. And as a kid, I couldn’t stand the place. The pancakes tasted like cardboard to me even though I was in love with their maple syrup slathered over their sausage patties. I didn’t like their biscuits which were not as tender as I could make them. The apple butter my aunts insisted on was like cinnamon tar. I hated it as a kid.

I am older now. I am nostalgic now. And I am single now. And any place where I can be served by a kind Southern woman with soft eyes and a plate full of biscuits and not at all sweet cornbread (much to my chagrin) and a copious amount of butter, jam and yes, apple butter.

I love being able to order mashed potatoes and the default being sawmill gravy (or as you Yankees call it “cream”). I love being able to choose between ham being sweet  with brown sugar or salty with bitterness and brine (choose sweet or we’re going to fight). I love that I can gorge myself on hushpuppies and mac and cheese and fried chicken.

The place became even more relevant to me when I moved and stopped going home for Thanksgiving. As someone who barely gets to eat all the lovely foods of the holidays twice a year, I did lament not being able to have the traditional Thanksgiving feast. Luckily, the Cracker Barrel is here to fill your sadness with ham and dressing and green beans and tea, oh the tea. It’s not home but it is good. It feels like all the times my mother, my grandmother, my aunt and I cooked for those they loved. Soul Food is not meant to be consumed alone while sitting on the sofa watching reruns of John Mulaney stand-up. It’s meant to be shared. And even if I’m alone at a table, I feel more at home surrounded by the Americana nostalgia-filled gravy-induced bender. And in the moments that I do get to share biscuits with a friend, it feels like an extension of my own table: it’s just another meal being shared with a loved one and that’s why Cracker Barrel is so interesting. The kitchy decor, rows of rocking chairs,  the claustrophobic store, the food that tastes just homemade enough to disguise the fact that you are in fact in a restaurant, the clinentle that seems to be mostly older people or families crowded around too small of tables: all of it, all of it is a beautiful disaster. So occasionally while I wait for my biscuits while slurping down a sweet tea that is just sweet enough or a lemonade served in a frosted mug because of course it is as I weigh the pros and cons of ordering the Coca-Cola Fudge cake and I ask myself:

What am I doing here?

Once that first tray of biscuits arrive, I am reminded. I’m here because it tastes like home. I’m here because even though I am sitting alone, I do not feel lonely. I am here because the food is good, not too expensive and reminds me of the good times I spent with my family.

That is why I am at the local Cracker Barrel.