Monday, February 1, 2010

Monday Munchies: Highway Nostalgia for the Last Time?

Some of you might remember my Cracker Barrel rant from way back in August. To avoid a long rehashing, I'll just say that, for as long as I can recall, Cracker Barrel billboards have comforted me. Whether traveling with my mother (as a child) or with my husband (as an adult), the sight of their brown-and-yellow logo has filled me with nostalgia – for the simple board games and puzzles of my youth, for the home-cooked meals at Mom's house, for wholesome books and television shows of long ago...

But sadly, Cracker Barrel – that ever-present, old-fashioned restaurant and country store – has lost some of its luster over the years. Every time, in fact, that Dan and I have ventured into one, we've left disappointed – whether because the service was slow, the food was lukewarm, or all of the above. It had reached the point where Dan simply refused to stop there ever again – no matter how much I, with my misguided sense of nostalgia and loyalty, tried to convince him otherwise.

So, we were at a standstill – Dan, unwilling to fork over another dime to this disillusioning establishment, and I, unable to let go of the illusion – that is, until I took the sagacious advice of one Stephanie Faris and shared my displeasure with CB's corporate headquarters. Of course, I never thought I would receive a response – after all, how many times have we complained about the practices of a corporation, only to be ignored? But, as reported in my September follow-up to the initial rant, I did indeed get a response – in the form of a heartfelt apology and a “gold card,” entitling me to a complimentary meal for two, at the Cracker Barrel of my choosing.

On that day in late September, I asked my online pals if I should swallow my pride and take Cracker Barrel up on its generous offer (and/or marketing ploy) – or if I should simply toss the card at my earliest opportunity. Well, several of you answered – Bridget, Martha, Roni, Becky, and Deb encouraged me to take advantage of the free food and excellent service that the card promised; Steph suggested that I just keep the card as a reminder of the lesson learned; and Susan thought it would be best to use the card, then never return. Well, today, while en route from the Florida Keys to New Orleans, Dan and I decided to give CB one more try. Yes, without my even pointing it out, Dan pulled into the parking lot of a rain-drenched Cracker Barrel in Brooksville, Florida, and smiled that naughty little smile of his. At that moment, the hunger pangs were so fierce that I was actually excited about our potentially ill-fated return to the CB fold, so after fumbling for the little “gold card,” which I had long ago stowed in my travel bag, we left the kitty in the van and headed inside for a short respite.

After strolling between the rocking chairs on the porch and passing through the ubiquitous inner country store – filled with an impressive selection of candy, candles, cookbooks, chimes, apparel, toys, dolls, games, and music, not to mention the paraphernalia of yesteryear (from washboards to rolling pins to watering cans) hanging from the ceiling – we were quickly seated beside a front window. Soon, a pleasant, middle-aged waitress named Carol arrived to take our drink order – hot Darjeeling tea for me, Diet Coke for Dan. Once she'd returned with the beverages, we were ready (if nervous) to order.

While waiting for our food, I took in our surroundings – from the bluegrass band playing on the speakers to the vintage d├ęcor on the latticed walls (including tennis rackets, fishing poles, old games such as pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey, and signs like “Headquarters for Keen Kutter quality pocket knives,” which reminded me of my stepbrother, Kit Keen, who, oddly enough, used to work in a Cracker Barrel). Dan, meanwhile, played with the peg game that was sitting on the tabletop. Of course, it didn't take him long to get frustrated with his inability to get rid of all the pegs but one (the object of the game) – although, to be fair, he's still suffering from the cold that I gave him three weeks ago.

By the time our food arrived, we had almost forgotten about the little “gold card,” which I had yet to show to our waitress. Dan immediately started delving into his sampler plate – containing chicken and dumplins, meatloaf, country-style ham, and his three chosen sides, corn, mashed potatoes, and fried apples – while I dug into my roast beef. It didn't take long, however, for us to remember why we had come – to give Cracker Barrel another honest-to-goodness chance – but while the service was surprisingly speedy and the food was still tasty, I admit that the meal was still less than satisfactory. Although my roast beef was warm and tender, the fried okra was delicious, and we both enjoyed the shared biscuits and corn muffins, Dan's food wasn't quite as hot as he's come to expect elsewhere. The fried apples were so cold, in fact, that he opted not to touch them at all.

Ultimately, I enjoyed the meal more than Dan did, but still, he admitted that it wasn't as bad as he'd expected it would be. Not a ringing endorsement, but better than it could have been. Perhaps I should've shown our waitress the “gold card” from the start, but I'm not typically a fan of special treatment – and frankly, I wanted to give our visit an honest try. I'm not sure what this says about the future of our Cracker Barrel encounters – it's likely that we'll never go again – but that won't stop me from feeling a little surge of nostalgia every time we pass by one of the ubiquitous billboards. In fact, we just passed another one in Alabama, and despite my mediocre meal earlier today, I still felt a moment of happiness. Is something wrong with me, or am I just a sucker for the joys of childhood?

13 comments:

Beth said...

I've never been to a Cracker Barrel. I don't think I've ever even seen one. For me, growing up, it was Perkins or Big Boy Restaurants. Those were the restaurants we always stopped to eat at when we were making the long drive to visit my grandparents.

Laura Martone said...

Wow, Beth, really? I wonder where you live that you've never seen a CB sign... I think they're in 41 states now, if you can believe it.

Although my grandparents always lived close to me, my mom and I still took long road trips to visit other folks... and CB was always the restaurant of choice. I have been to Big Boy, though - it's a good late-night munchies joint in Los Angeles.

Christine H said...

I've never had cold fried apples there, and our food has always been delicious! I think it depends entirely on the indivudual restaurant managers.

I mean, where else in the world would I actually look forward to eating turnip greens but at Cracker Barrel? Anywhere else, I wouldn't even consider them food!

And they have the best coffee. Oh, I love their coffee! I'm sorry you've had such a bad experience with them.

Christine H said...

Oh, I'm a sucker for that nostalgic feel, too. For the longest time I didn't even know they had a restaurant because the signs say "Old Country Store." They don't even mention food.

You could probably get stellar service everywhere you go by mentioning that you are a travel writer and will be posting a review on your blog. It would be interesting to go to the same restaurant in a few weeks, flash your card, mention your job and see if your experience is any better. I'm curious now.

Susan R. Mills said...

Well, I'm glad you gave it another try. Too bad it didn't really change anything. Cold fried apples, huh? Interesting.

Bane of Anubis said...

It's always sad when the barrier of nostalgia is weathered away. But hey, not sure if you heard, but the Saints are in the Superbowl :)

Deb@RGRamblings said...

Glad Dan took you in for a helping of nostalgia, sometimes we need more than good food to feed our souls. :)

Becky said...

Oh Laura, you're a romantic, sentimental person and that's why I like you so much. My DH is too, (well, more sentimental than romantic LOL).

I just think in this day and age of drive-thu service, Cracker Barrel may be past its prime. Maybe you and Dan should just stop there for coffee breaks from now on.... Glad you gave it another chance though. If it makes you happy, that's important.... as Deb said, let it feed your soul (and stick to the tea/coffee).

Jen said...

I've never been or seen a Cracker Barrel before either. But I've enjoyed hearing your stories about them!

Laura Martone said...

Christine, I'm glad you've had such good experiences at Cracker Barrel. Dan and I travel around the country often, and we've stopped at several different ones - in several different states - and we have yet to have a truly positive experience (despite the fact that our standards aren't ridiculously high). So, perhaps we're just going to the wrong ones...

P.S. I will admit, however, that CB's apple cider and turnip greens are pretty darn good - and that nostalgic feel is hard to pass up.

P.P.S. While I was traveling in the Keys, I was pretty up-front about being a travel writer, and you're right, the service I received was excellent. But such special treatment did make me feel a little strange.

jbchicoine said...

Ha, Laura, that's funny! I was wondering if you were ever going to use your coupon! I think in this situation, the old adage 'You can never go back...' applies--quite literally!

Laura Martone said...

Susan - It was still worth another go, and actually, I kinda liked the cold fried apples, but I'm weird.

Bane - I had in fact heard about the Super Bowl! One guess who I'll be rooting for...

Deb - I couldn't agree more.

Becky - Coffee/tea breaks might be a good way to go. At least then, I'd still get my CB fix without feeling like a big ol' fool.

Jen - Never seen one?! How can that be? CB is in almost every state! Maybe I just notice the billboards more often than I should.

Laura Martone said...

Well, Bridget, I guess I felt like I'd waited long enough. But you're right - sometimes, you really never should go back!