Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Tuesday Travels: Highway Nostalgia

Yesterday, I told you that my husband and I will be trading Michigan for New Orleans in less than six weeks. We’ve made this particular interstate journey several times, which means that we’ll soon be passing the same exit signs, rest areas, and eateries that we’ve often spotted during previous trips. While I love to travel little-known roads and discover little-visited places, it’s comforting to traverse familiar interstates, with their recognizable hotel and restaurant chains (and related billboards). One of my favorite stops has often been Cracker Barrel, an old-fashioned restaurant and country store that now exists in 41 U.S. states, from Idaho to Florida.

Every time I spy a Cracker Barrel billboard, I feel a little thrill inside, mostly because my mother and I used to eat there often, while on our many road trips across America. I can still remember the delight of strolling past the rocking chairs on the porch and into the inviting country store, which offered a cornucopia of old-fashioned candies, cookbooks, home furnishings, and other comforting souvenirs. (This was, of course, before I understood the corporate cleverness of positioning a gift shop between the entrance and the dining area.) I can still recall the down-home menu, the tableside peg games, and the yummy meals – from full country-style breakfasts to dinner plates that included entrées like gravy-drenched roast beef or hickory-smoked ham; sides like fried apples, turnip greens, dumplins, and breaded okra; plus a dish of homemade buttermilk biscuits or corn muffins. True Southern cuisine at its finest!

But here’s the thing. Nostalgia can be misleading. The same billboards that elicit all these wonderful memories of vacations with Mom have also managed to lure Dan and me from the highway on several occasions – only to be disappointed each time by cold food and slow service. The porch, with its rocking chairs and checkerboards, is still just as inviting as ever. The country store is still brimming with the same pecan logs, ginger snaps, candles, kitchenware, and classic dolls and games that tantalized me as a child. The country-style décor still comforts me as it always has, but the food is less than appetizing these days.

No matter which Cracker Barrel we’ve tried in recent years, the experience is always the same. And yet the chain keeps expanding – despite the fact that we’re not the only ones who have lost their initial attraction for the place. Even my mom – who tends to be less critical than Dan and me – refuses to eat at the Cracker Barrel in Baton Rouge, where she lives. She, too, has been burned by too many unpleasant meals. So, it begs the question – why does Cracker Barrel continue to thrive? Do other diners simply have lower standards, or do many of us crave a place that feels like home?

Of course, Cracker Barrel isn’t the only thing that didn’t weather the storm of adulthood. Vienna sausages aren’t as tasty as when I used to swipe them from my grandfather’s pantry, and after raving about the Lonesome Dove television series for years, I finally convinced my husband to sit down and watch it with me – only to realize that it’s just not as good without commercials. Ah, the folly of youth. Sometimes, I miss the naiveté of those days. Don’t you?


jbchicoine said...

My husband and I have also done a LOT of interstate driving between MI, NH & MO. We were lured by the very sign of which you speak. I don’t remember if the biscuits gravy and sausage with eggs were particularly good (it probably tasted great when compared to 18-hour-deprivation mode that driving straight thru brings on). All I remember was that driving another 10 hours was the last thing my food-laden body felt like doing.
We did not do that again.

Anita said...

I eat out very rarely, because I can't take this kind of diappointment...we have a few places that are ALWAYS good, and we stick to those...love the chairs at CB, though.

Laura Martone said...

Bridget - No doubt, ANYTHING would taste yummy after a long road trip. Dan and I also do a lot of interstate driving every year - between Los Angeles and New Orleans, New Orleans and Michigan, etc. - and we've since abandoned our evil hard-core driving habits of a few years ago. Nothing's worth such fatigue. So, in our case, we're no longer tired enough for Cracker Barrel's lure - and it's just not as good as it used to be. :-(

Anita - I totally understand. My hubby's a great cook - so I'd much rather eat his food than risk going out for a questionable meal. But as a travel writer, I try to keep an open mind... you never know when you'll find a gem!

Stephanie Faris said...

A few months ago, I would have said that I'd never had a bad experience at Cracker Barrel. But the last few times we've been have been bad. They leave out parts of our order, let our food sit there until it's hard beneath those lights, and we (occasionally) get rude servers. It's unbelievable. I think you should tell them. It's important for them to know.

What sucks is until recent years you could ALWAYS count on Cracker Barrel for good service and good food. It was always the same. They were overly conscientious about it. But it just gets worse and worse and we no longer count on Cracker Barrel as we used to. Go to their website and link them here. Let them know. I'm going to take the receipt I got the other night from dinner and do the survey they sent me to let them know.

Laura Martone said...

I'm totally with you, Steph. I don't think this is simply a case of romanticizing a place of my youth - I think the food and service at Cracker Barrel HAVE declined in recent years. And you're right - I should let CB know about my disappointment - instead of simply venting my frustrations on a blog (although, as a side note, a blog is a terrific place to vent one's frustrations). And I think it's great that you're planning to follow through with the CB survey. How else will they know that they could be losing long-time customers? The servers I've met recently certainly wouldn't care. Maybe the corporate office would?