More out of curiosity than hunger, I found myself having breakfast this morning at The Cracker Barrel Old Country Store and Restaurant, you know, the one located conspicuously off route 50 eastbound? They put it there, presumably, for to better ensnare roadweary beachbounders with a weakness for apple flapjacks and things of the country-cutesy persuasion. And it works.
This little bit of franchise zoning logic seemed all the more apparent to me ( I would never normally stop at this place) as a person who lives east of here, deeper into the truly countrified heart of Queen Anne’s county, where we know how to cook our own pancakes and fry our own scrapple (not on the menu, btw). But this was a different morning. I was on assignment, thus, I made it my goal to understand what kind of place The Cracker Barrel really is. And I came to some interesting conclusions. I think.
Ok. Lets return to a phrase I used in the opening paragraph. Country cutesy. This is a critical term crucial to understanding some, but not all aspects of the decor sensibility of The Cracker Barrel Old Country Store and Restaurant. I’m not sure that anyone has really bothered to coin it yet; maybe it’s totally foreign to you, or maybe you’ve heard it uttered in disdain by some liberal elitist auntie poo of yours over a copy of the Sotheby’s Catalog. Anyway, I am going play the role of lexicographer here and try to offer up my best understanding of this little documented, yet hard to miss, phenomenon. So here we go, country-cutesy (chiefly cynical, distrustful)
1.) of or pertaining to an aesthetic that either imitates or tends towards notions of rusticity, simplicity, and artisanal Americana, often in a way that could be construed as sentimental or nostalgic. e.g. “Do you think grammy’ll like this?” said Doris to her sister, as she eyed the cornhusk doll in the red white and blue jumper-cum-reading lamp, “No,” replied Lisa, “I’m afraid she’ll think it’s a little too…country cutesy.” Ed. note; The assumption, in labeling an object or place as c.c. is that despite its intended purpose to inspire some sense of American authenticity in the consumer, they are often (but not always) fake, mass produced, perhaps even manufactured abroad. It’s sincerity that is uncannily insincere.
So, yes, there’s a lil’ bit of a country-cutesy thang goin’ on at the old Cracker Barrel. However, this does not extend so much to the priceless “real American artifacts” (just ask their “Americana expert”, Larry Singleton and his team) hanging from every rafter and inch of wall space, as their merchandise, which you can also purchase online. After walking past the regiment of $145 front porch rockers (this front porch, if not for the roof, could have landed a Cessna), I was confronted immediately by the “gift area”, the Old Country Store part of the franchise preoccupied with selling things indisputably American in character.
What I saw that I can remember were toys and tchotkes and candy for girls and boys invoking those dulcet days of postwar bliss (“1950s Remember When Candy, $7.99), tablecloths and American flag nappy holders, men and women’s clothing,“In God We Still Trust”, A 365-Day Devotional (see the “American Pride Collection”), Patriotic Peg Game, Peg Games (standard), Peg Game Mugs (i.e. mugs printed with pictures of a peg game, patriotic or otherwise, in progress), a Republican Elephant tumbler glass, wooden figurines with names like, “Promise”, “Angel of Friendship”, and “Together”… and on and on and on.
You’re probably sensing a trend here, one we might term as culturally conservative, although it might be a corporate faux pas for the C.B.O.C.S. & Restaurant chain to reach out explicitly to the likes of Glen Beck for a mug endorsement deal. But comes on C.B.O.C.S. & Restaurant! I’m on to you.
In other words, the C.B.O.C.S. & Restaurant isn’t just there right off the highway to serve you breakfast all day. It’s there to remind us (have you forgotten?) of a simpler, happier, time in America, a time that we might situate as roughly between the post-bellum Reconstruction era, and the screening of the first episode of the Andy Griffith Show. Times we can easily look back on and think, “yes, those were times of progress, when every American could (start to) exercise their franchise…buy a coke, radio flyer wagon, a home.” (If you’re looking for more of this mumbo jumbo, look no further than the A.M. bandwidth.)
But like the Hard Rock Cafe or any other theme-restaurant, the C.B.O.C.S & Restaurant is heavy on ambience, and light on just about everything else.(I actually saw someone wearing a Hard Rock Cafe Budapest t-shirt, a surreal glimmer of cultural diversity in a vacuum of Americana.) They’re selling you an experience, if not an ideology, with food on the side. With a framed, sailboat themed calendar dated “August 1956” hanging near the kitchen door, it became all too clear to me that this place is designed to transport its diners into a memory of the past where everything was, well, just dandy. The question is, what sort of person does this idealized, make-believe version of America appeal to? Also, is there really anything wrong with Americana, real or fake, in and of itself?
To be sure, this era of which I speak (judging by the artifacts, late 19th century to mid 20th), which really encompasses multiple eras unto itself, did contain some great moments of our history-the reunification of the United States, the rise of women’s suffrage and the start of the civil rights movement, the New Deal, the post-war boom. But it also saw some other not so nice things, like the persistence of Jim Crow, the rise of the K.K.K., the Japanese American Internment, McCarthyism…Needless to say, C.B.O.C.S. & Restaurant doesn’t pretend to be the history channel. The history they give us is one of objects, a jumbled, material history suggesting an America at peace with itself in happy domestic and industrial bliss.
But this white-washed narrative of simplicity, progress, and the spoils of hard work–oozing ingratiating onto me from walls festooned with cans of condensed milk, red and white life-rings, classic coke and 7-up pin-ups, vacuum hoses, squeezeboxes, black and white portraits of severe-faced white frontier people, and for a touch of regional authenticity (they take serious pride in this), an old crabbers net– couldn’t feel more anachronistic than now, the post 9/11, 2008, pick-your-national-calamity of the last decade-era .
And if you’re like me, immersing yourself in a bucket of boy scout camp-cafeteria-style grits and gravy with “The Gospel Side of Dailey and Vincent” crooning in the background isn’t exactly comforting either, nor does it taste particularly good. Rather, the whole C.B.O.C.S. & Restaurant experience/vibe gives you that sorta sick/full feeling that you get after eating food from a sterno heated vat at that summer camp your parents forced you to go to back in ’97. You feel kinda cheated. Hey didn’t some, well sorta screwed up things ever happen between 1866 and 1960? you wonder to yourself, chewing your rubbery meat patty. Not by C.B.O.C.S. & Restaurant’s reckoning.
Judging by how full the parking lot was, it is just this take on history that many Americans like the best. As it turns out, it is in the c.c. fashion that a significant number of people like their gravy, so deal with it.
I bet you’re wondering by now what I ordered, or if I was too full of my self as an amateur anthropologist/social critic to order at all. Well… I got two eggs over easy and turkey sausage, with gravy, grits, hash browns and some biscuits on the side. There’s the picture so you’ll believe me. (See the single orange slice? That’s for extra nutrients.) It cost me, plus tip, about $12. Something tells me the food isn’t really where they make their money.
As I was settling my bill in the Old Country Store end of the establishment (they give you not one, but two opportunities to splurge on their “gifts”), I asked the kindly older woman behind the counter, “So, how would you describe the decor of this place?”
Looking at me with warm bemusement, she said, “Well, I’d say it’s country, you know, the way an old country store would have looked, ‘course, I’m old enough to remember…there used to be one like this in Stevensville.”
“Oh yeah?” I asked, a little vacantly as I signed the receipt, “So, all this…stuff, where did it come from? Is it the real deal?”
“Oh, sure,” she said, glancing towards the mini galaxy of old-time baking utensils and croquet mallets hovering above her head, “We have someone who goes out and finds it for the stores. It’s supposed to remind us how stuff used to be.”