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.


Cultural Gentrification and You

There's no such thing as being too Southern. Lewis Grizzard.png

It started with a simple enough inquiry about mason jars. A coworker asked me where to get a few so of course, being the Southern belle that I am, I asked what the use of the jars would be for. Her answer was frank. She wanted to make parfaits. Parfaits of all things. Think of the history of the mason jar. Once a proud Southern staple that held everything from flowers to nuts and bolts to necessary canned goods that could sustain  a family through the unpredictable winters. Now, they’re the subject of many a Pinterest board about all the fun, crafty things you can do with the versatile glass vessel. So with all that in mind, let’s talk about cultural gentrification, fads and all the tools a Southern lady has in her handbook that are now for some reason very in-style.

We’ve discussed cultural appropriation, dual-consciousness and Southern heritage become codified and popular all before so if you haven’t read those posts, now’s a good time.

I’ll wait.

All done?

Awesome, let’s get started.

So, of course, I had to talk about this matter with fellow Southern black woman and cultural anthropologist, Amber. We had a lengthy talk about how mason jars became suddenly so chic. I remember growing up with mason jars. We received canned goods from family members. We treasured gifts of apple butter, lemon curd, chow chow and bread and butter pickles. My grandfather canned foods. His family canned foods. I learned how to make jams and jellies and curds as I got older and wanted to keep the produce I was getting from the farmer’s market a little longer despite the fickle seasons of South Texas. It was just something good Southern folk did. (Not to say that Yankees didn’t ever can, pickle or preserve.)

Now suddenly, something that was a utility and was therefore kept cheap and easy to access because people used them for everything suddenly became rather expensive. And while I do love all the colors mason jars come in now, they’re far more costly than they ever were and are harder to find as people use them for country weddings, vision boards and to literally hold just parfaits. And I still remember many a Yankee friend question why we kept our flowers in empty pickle jars during my youth despite now these same Yankee friends asking “Where do you get Ball Mason Jars?” like Google doesn’t exist.

This was a conversation had at one of the halcyon symbols of gentrification to us as Southern black people: an overpriced barbecue restaurant. Now the cultural and social conditions that made BBQ a Southern staple could be its own post but I want to talk about a restaurant Amber and I went to: The Granary. It’s a nice place. It’s in the new booming area that is the Pearl Brewery and it has some decent barbecue. But good Lord, it’s expensive. 20 or so dollars for a plate with portions that were small for what a Southern lady expects out of a BBQ place. The sides were decent, too. The pickles were sweet (I like sweet dills, Amber does not). The bread was delicious since it was made with buttermilk. The sausage was good, the brisket was fine but the hitch was the collard greens. Oh the collard greens. Amber ordered them and immediately turned up a frown. She begged me to taste them and I did. They were sweet. Very sweet. Greens aren’t meant to be sweet.

We deduced that there had to be sugar and the sweet dill pickle brine in the vat of greens. Now, sugar is an additive in some recipes for collard greens to cut some of the bitterness (Amber says this is a sin but I know at least one family recipe calls for some sugar to make green palatable). And again, the food history of collard greens and other foods brought out of the terrible burden that was slavery but I digress. We came to the idea that the sugar was added to the greens at The Granary as if someone saw a recipe in an old Southern cook book and didn’t make any changes at all. We all know many Southern recipes may say add ⅛ cup of sugar but that doesn’t always actually mean ⅛ cup of sugar. Feel free to ask my friend Taylor about the pain of Southern recipes. I could never give him a solid measurement of how sugar was in my famous lemon meringue pie recipe because I never had a solid measurement. It always changed based on taste, how I felt and what the pie needed. Another great culinary example of this is “bone broth”. My new-age auntie explained to me that bone broth is just a rich stock made by exploting the gelatin and collagen in the bones of many animals while making stock or broth. To which I then quickly corrected her: “Oh, so the way our ancestors have been making broth for generations.” and she could only simply nod. The “faces” of the bone broth movement have been mostly Paleo Diet white women which is quiet ironic. It was their desire for clearer broths and stocks that lead to bones not being used in the stock-making process. Additionally, there was this fun little add-on to Google Chrome that changed any instance of “bone broth” to “hot ham water” since that’s what it was essentially. There was nothing different about it and as a cultural artifact, despite it’s now apparently health “benefits” it isn’t new and to charge several dollars for a jar just because it’s being rediscovered is disrespectful to the many home cooks who had to keep the bones in broth because that may be the only piece of meat for their family for weeks or even months.

Let’s get back to gentrification. Gentrification is about taking something that was typically accessible to the poor or culturally disenfranchised and making them pop culture and thus driving up the price of them. Suddenly those old tennent homes in the Bronx are oh so chic which is driving out the old rent-controlled tenants who have called those home for decades. Like me with my mason jars, now because they’re en vogue, it’s difficult to find cheap mason jars anymore for the rose jam I make in the summer. My other main concern with cultural gentrification and appropriation is the separation from the roots of these cultural staples.

I’m a proud Southern lady but I am also critically aware that being proud of being Southern is a complex legacy. There are plenty of Southern artifacts that cannot be rehabilitation. A sprawling plantation home was still once a plantation. The food many Southerners hold near and dear came from, started with and were perpetuated by disenfranchised people at minimum and at max were created out of the necessities and horrors of chattel slavery. They are distinct, valid and belong to another culture and the only difference between homage and ripping off is respect. I’m not angry at The Granary for overcharging on small portions of fairly decent barbecue. I know it was from a place of respect. The recipes came from a place of trying to honor the memories of the South.

It’s difficult to take back parts of Southern culture and remove them from the fact that they were often done out of necessity. Black women learned to sew because they had to because clothing was difficult to afford. White women learned canning and pickling to keep crops safe for uncertain times. Poor black folks created barbecue to use up less than ideal parts of animals because that’s what they were given. Taking those cultural artifacts, jacking up the price and making them fancy is literally losing the point. And when an outsider removes the cultural heritage and point of an artifact like using mason jars for just overnight chia seed pudding while not acknowledging the history, trials and struggles that came with those artifacts: again, the point is being lost.

So by now I’m sure you’re asking a few questions. Am I just a bitter Southern princess lamenting over the increased price of a mason jar and the rise of basic bitch Pinterest boards that promote literally gluing cotton balls to pinecones to bring “The South indoors”? Probably. But is there a larger conservation to be had about changing trends, appropriation and being aware of the cultural roots of many common artifacts? Yes, for sure.