Cracker Barrel: A Blast from the Past

I’ve seen these places in all of the states I have lived, visited, and just passed through. No doubt, so have you. Usually next to a truck stop, around other restaurants, or just off of the interstate. My mom used to tell me I was missing out for not at least going inside. My son had asked me a couple of times to take him, cause the one he went to was the best eatin’ he’d had. That one was somewhere near Myrtle Beach, SC. So, what was I waiting for?

I am told every Cracker-Barrel is themed the same. Country Cooking, Country Store, Country Folk. We went to the one in Smithfield, NC (just off of I-95, wouldn’t you know it?). That parking lot was full! Oh we found a spot to park, but I already expected to have to wait, and I was warned that we might have to sit and play checkers until a table was available. These checkers tables were the over-sized cloth mats with the over-sized checkers, sitting in front of white rocking chairs just outside the entrance to the establishment. My kids had one of these checkers sets, of which half the checkers were lost or used for some other purpose.

Upon arriving we could smell wood burning in a real fireplace, and feel the real wooden surfaces of the structure and accents. Once inside, we didn’t have to wait long. They arranged each party’s table requirements very efficiently and we were shown to our table. Hanging from the ceiling and rafters were certain things that caught my eye. An old bicycle tire, an old shredder/grater, a bed pan (which I am confident was clean), an old eggbeater, meat grinder, sifters, molds for deserts, vintage advertisements for various name-brand products that have been around for ages, and some that never made it mainstream. I remember thinking ‘Man! What did they do? Hire some one to go to all of the little thrift shops and buy this stuff?’ You just don’t see this stuff anywhere!

We were seated and very warmly greeted by an eager to please waitress. A young lady with red hair, lightly freckled fair complexion, and a sweetly singing voice. I could envision what Opey Taylor’s sister might have looked like. Now, don’t go thinking there is one of HER in every restaurant. We ordered drinks first, coffee for me. Everyone else had “Stewart’s Olde Fashioned” Root Beer in FROSTED MUGS!! I had to have one! While we waited on our food to be served, we all took turns trying to beat the brainteaser that you will find on every table. You’ve seen the triangles with the 15 holes but only 14 “golf pegs”? You jump one over another removing the one you jumped over, until there are no jumps remaining. Have you ever made it to genius? It boasts 34 years of frustration, but after 36 years I can brag a little. Another pleasing touch at each table was a lit oil lamp.

Our food arrived. One plate was chicken-fried chicken with milk gravy, mashed potatoes and fried apples. A second plate was meatloaf, mashed potatoes and green beans. Mine was spicy grilled catfish, hash brown casserole, dumplings and green beans. The serving sizes were what my wife calls “Jethro-sized”, especially the chicken. Everything was very appealing to the eyes. In fact., if you let them, your eyes would make you ask for more. You know what I did, right? I tried it all! That chicken was seasoned just right, tender boneless breast, breaded to golden perfection, like the menu’s picture promises. The meatloaf was thick and juicy, not thin and greasy like most. And the catfish was indeed spicy, not so much so that it burned, but it had a bite to it. Again, two healthy-sized filets filled half my plate. The sides were equally delicious and ample, especially the hash brown casserole, which I am told is one of their exclusives. I was more than impressed.

You may also order breakfast anytime during business hours. Oh, let me tell you, the pancakes are something I envy them of. I cook good pancakes, really, I do. But there’s something about fresh cooked, real pancakes topped with a serving size bottle of 100% pure, hot, maple syrup. I honestly believe no one compares to them. The sausage, thick-sliced bacon and country ham (which all comes on the Sunrise Sampler) are fresh-cooked, low on grease, and great on taste. I’d also like to figure out how they make that sawmill gravy to go with the fresh buttermilk biscuits. Of course, the eggs were fried hard or scrambled and topped with real cheddar cheese. A great start or finish to any day if you ask me.

The service rendered by our waitress was both friendly and helpful. The manager even walked around shaking hands and asking each patron if they were enjoying their meal and service. We could tell he was grading certain members of the wait staff as well. I’m sure they got excellent grades, to only have been on the job three months. That’s something you don’t get too many places.

Cracker Barrel also has a major distraction for every visitor. It’s country store. You can purchase one of those oversized checkerboards to take home, and in civil war colors to boot. There are so many “little memories” in the items they sell. I didn’t know they still made most of this stuff. Like Guillow’s balsa wood Barnyard Stormer. The rubber band-powered plane my dad once bought me when I was in single digit years. That almost brought tears to my eyes. Every one in our house got one. Pez dispensers of all styles and characters. The games and toys I remember playing with my siblings and friends, including the brainteaser with golf pegs (I still have mine). And then I came to a section of candles called Yankee Candles. The scents were so true to life that when I picked up the honeysuckle and inhaled it’s aroma, tears did come to my eyes. I hadn’t smelled it so up close in so many years, it just took me back to a time when I knew the smell of this flower, perfectly captured in a jar. Macintosh Apple was another that reminded me of an apple orchard, so vibrant and realistic.

Oh, there’s displays of John Deere stuff from toy tractors to plates, shirts and salt and pepper shakers. There’s also a display section for Classic Coke, with a few other types of collectibles offered. There’s a large selection of Gillian’s thin stick candy in dozens of flavors ( 10 cents each), most of which I managed to try as a kid. There’s Chico sticks, pure sugar rock candy, Pop Rocks. It was so endearing to see these things again.

There was also a large selection of products made right here in North Carolina. Bone-Suckin Sauce, Cacallacky Sauce, Hot Pepper Jelly, Burt’s Bees Wax (which is really good for your nails and cuticles). Oh, and larger-sized bottles of the 100% pure maple syrup they served with your pancakes!!! You can even buy a premixed package of the corn muffins you had with dinner to prepare in your own home whenever you want, as well as the gravy, sauces and so much more.

So, if you find yourself hungry from all the shopping you did at Smithfield’s Factory Outlet Mall, just off of I-95, exit 95, I highly recommend Cracker Barrel. Well, actually, I would reccommend any of their locations, but I think you knew that. Especially if you want REAL, GREAT food, and more so for the fond memories you’ll undoubtedly encounter in the store.

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