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God bless the USA... and Cracker Barrel

After experiencing the tacky shlock and awe that is White Fence Farm, I headed for the one place that could stand toe to toe with its down-home country-cooking style and pure Americana weirdness. The one place where, I am not ashamed to admit, I have eaten more than once on my own dime.

Cracker Barrel.

Yes, Cracker Barrel — a massive chain of combination restaurant/country-store locations that stretches across the country. The most recent count I could find put the number at nearly 600. Based in Lebanon, Tennessee, Cracker Barrel is a Southern comfort-food concept that features gigantic portions, ridiculously low prices and a surprisingly well-prepared menu — provided you are not expecting brilliance, originality or anything outside of the American canon. The gift shops attached to each restaurant offer everything from books on tape and classic candies to lawn ornaments, pancake mix, Loretta Lynn CDs and the kind of tourist T-shirts that tend to pop up at ironic moments in Quentin Tarantino movies. These shops basically act as our Strategic Kitsch Reserve, a national stockpile of horehound drops, American flag ornaments, John Deere beer steins and wire egg baskets shaped like chickens.

My fascination with Cracker Barrel dates back to when I was traveling around the country by car — running away from bad debts, failed relationships, broken leases and parking tickets gone to warrant. After a thousand miles of Burger Kings and Roy Rogers franchises and thruway coffee, the only better sight coming up on the eight-lane horizon is a Stuckey's — and there just ain't that many Stuckey's locations west of, say, Georgia.

Laura, my mom and I stopped in at the Northglenn Cracker Barrel one day last week and, for about a nickel and a half, got enough food for a half-dozen hungry lumberjacks. Hot coffee by the gallon; real buttermilk pancakes served with maple syrup that'd actually once been inside a tree; flaky, crumbly biscuits with apple butter; baked apples slathered in cinnamon goo; grits with sawmill gravy; and hash-brown casserole studded with onions. And that was just for me. The kitchen did a passable job putting together a chef salad (everything was fresh, if not particularly inspired) for my mom and also served up a nice piece of country ham.

There was a day not too long ago when Jacques Pepin, one of the best cooks of his generation, worked for the Howard Johnson's chain simply because the owners of that operation allowed him to produce food that was good, cheap and mass-produced all at the same time — proof that fast, cheap and tacky does not necessarily have to equal dull, gross or tasteless. Sure, most of the time it does. But for me, Cracker Barrel has always been the exception to that rule.

 
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