Wednesday, October 24, 2007

The Barrel Crack'd

Every time I'm eating at Cracker Barrel, I have the exact same thought: I can't believe I'm eating at Cracker Barrel.

I didn't grow up in the South. I have no emotional attachment to Southern food. I don't particularly appreciate the chain's countrified theme, or its schlock-filled stores.

I'm not saying that Cracker Barrel is bad. I'm just saying that if there were a fan club, I wouldn't sign up.

Having written all that, I must confess that every few months or so, Complementary Spouse Britt Shirley and I will be driving somewhere and we'll pass a Cracker Barrel sign and I'll get an inexplicable hankering to eat there.

That's what happened Sunday night as we were returning from babysitting my parents in Jacksonville (my parents were there babysitting my nephew). And that's how we ended up eating dinner at the Cracker Barrel in Altamonte Springs, just northeast of Orlando.

We were seated right away. I had a great view of Bambi's mother's head, glued to the wall:

Welcome to Cracker Barrel. We killed Bambi's mother

It's an eight-point deer, in case you're wondering. I love the gun mounted underneath the deer, by the way. It's a great design touch!

Whenever I go to Cracker Barrel, I always pore over the menu and select something that seems reasonable and tasty. Then, at the last minute, after the server asks me what I want, I notice something that I didn't see before -- and it's always something like "Aunt So-And-So's Down Home Something-Or-Other." The word "smothered" inevitably appears in the description, as does "family recipe."

I'll ask the server if the new thing I just discovered on the menu is any good, and he or she will profess it's the best thing that Cracker Barrel has ever made. I'll order it. I'll be disappointed. I'll wish I had stuck with my original selection, which was something simple like pancakes or a chicken breast.

One of the things that I detest about Cracker Barrel is the peg game that's sitting on the table.

I hate these things

The goal of this thing is to jump the pegs, removing as many as you can. If you're smart, you should be left with just one peg. I am supposed to be smart. However, I seem to end up with more pegs than I start with. I don't even know how that's possible. The game mocks me.

The most shocking thing about this trip to Cracker Barrel was a discovery I made in the country store, which is usually filled with things like ceramic angels, snowglobes depicting rural scenes, candles, country music CDs, John Deere and Coca-Cola collectibles, and the like.

And then, tucked away in a corner of the store, I found this:

Hanukkah stuff ... in Cracker Barrel?

I couldn't believe it. It's two shelves of Hanukkah stuff. I felt I needed to take another picture to prove that these things were actually in Cracker Barrel:

Hanukkah stuff ... in Cracker Barrel?

Of course, I'm disturbed by this. What's next? Cracker Barrel yarmulkes and mezuzzahs? Will they be catering bar and bat mitzvahs?

I wonder how many Cracker Barrel customers actually know what menorahs and dreidels are.

On Monday, I told America's Favorite Food Writer Jeff Houck (host of the incredible Side Salad blog) about our adventures at Cracker Barrel -- and our discovery of Hanukkah stuff in the country store.

Houck surprised me. He said that Roy Yamaguchi, a highly respected chef and founder of Roy's, is a well known Cracker Barrel fan and is partial to the chicken-fried chicken there.

Really? You're kidding. No? Whoa.

Well, I don't know when Britt and I will end up back in Cracker Barrel, but at least I know what to order: the chicken-fried chicken.

Of course, I'll probably end up changing my mind at the last minute when I see Uncle So-And-So's Down Home Whatever on the menu. I'm sad and predictable that way.

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