A West Coast Girl Meets a Southern Dining Staple: A Love Story
by Darrah Belle
Thirty-something years ago, I was born in the San Fernando Valley suburb of Encino. Aside from moving to New England for two years in my early-twenties, I’ve lived in Los Angeles my whole life. Not unlike Sarah Jessica Parker’s rendition of a single New Yorker obsessed with her city, I’d take a baseball bat to anybody who had negative stuff to say about my hometown. That being said, I can and do deconstruct it quite frequently.
About eight years ago, I was hit with a flash fever of interest in the South, after writing a review of wine heiress Linda Mondavi’s Atlanta spa, 29 Spa at the Mansion on Peachtree. That flash fever spread and became a total-body obsession with all things Southern.
When I think of the South, I think of Cracker Barrel, a famous casual family restaurant with an adjoining “Old Country Store” not unlike the general stores you saw as a kid on “Little House on the Prairie,” where local folks got goods on a tab. Cracker Barrel is a place you might see Dixie Carter choosing an Easter dress for her grandchild.
When I think of the South, I also think of their famed southern hospitality, fanciful southern belles, and culture of kindness, shabby-chic décor, strong sense of patriotism, national pride, and stubborn streak. It is a vastly different place from anything I’ve known.
With eyes as wide—and molasses slow—as a Savannah, Georgia yawn I observe judgeless and from a distance, ways of life totally foreign from mine: hunting, fishing, wearing fur, barbecue and political conservatism. I appreciate that most men there who identify strongly with their masculinity are using their hands daily. Men drive trucks to haul stuff, not to raise the rims. Driving in Nashville, taking in the gorgeous Vanderbilt campus, you’ll see many references to a unified sense of Christian faith, something Los Angeles prides itself on not having.
The South is a hodgepodge of interesting people and things that leave me feeling all warm, buzzy, comforted, wholesome, quirky, and curious.
For the last couple years, I’ve visited at least two southern states each year. Last year, I visited San Antonio, Texas and Memphis and Nashville, Tennessee (Nashville has become an annual tradition). This year, I hope to visit North Carolina and South Carolina, having already enjoyed Nashville earlier this summer.
It’s hard to believe but I only just discovered Cracker Barrel in 2015. It was a fateful day, when my partner drove us into the parking lot one rainy night after a long travel day in Texas. I told him I’d wait in the car. It was late, plus I don’t like eating when I’m wet. He was adamant that I’d love the place.
Begrudgingly, I gathered my scarf and hat and coat and pride and lagged far behind in the giant parking lot until I reached the restaurant’s front porch. Outside most Cracker Barrel’s, visitors are greeted by two-dozen oversize wood rocking chairs that sit aside several small tables adorned with checkers games. Quaintly, the checkerboard is made of a rug!
I felt like I’d maybe fallen down a velvet-lined gingham-print rabbit hole. “WHAT!?” I exclaimed.
A smile stretched across his face.
Like Goldilocks, I began testing each rocking chair to find the one that was jusssst right. They even had tiny doll-size ones for toddlers that fit my little daughter perfectly! He had to drag me inside. When you enter Cracker Barrel, there is a ubiquitous sign in the foyer alluding to their welcome policy.
A little history on Cracker Barrel: Founded in 1969 by Danny Evins, its first store was in Lebanon, Tennessee, which remains the company’s headquarters. Its name references old-time country stores where people played checkers atop barrels used to carry crackers and other wares. The chain’s stores were at first positioned near Interstate Highway exits in the Southeastern and Midwestern US, but it has expanded across the country. As of 2012, there are 639 stores in 43 states.
Controversies (why that sign exists): During the 1990s, the company was the subject of controversy for its official stance against gay and lesbian employees and for discriminatory practices against African American and female employees. A US Department of Justice investigation found that Cracker Barrel discriminated against minority customers; patrons complained of racially segregated seating and service quality. In an agreement with the USDOJ, Cracker Barrel has implemented non-discrimination policies and pledged to focus on improving minority representation and civic involvement, particularly in the black community.
In early 1991, an intra-company memo called for employees to be dismissed if they did not display “normal heterosexual values.” It was reversed two months later and in 2002 sexual orientation was added to the company’s sexual discrimination policy.
Reparations: The terms of the 2006 lawsuit included new equal opportunity training; the creation of a new system to log, investigate, and resolve complaints of discrimination; and the publicizing of its non-discrimination policies.
Since the early 2000s, Cracker Barrel has provided training and resources to minority employees. As of 2002, minorities made up 23 percent of the company’s employees, including over 11 percent of its management and executives.
The company has been praised for its gender diversity, particularly on its board of directors. Three of its 11 members are women. CEO, Sandra Cochran, is the second woman in Tennessee to hold that office in a publicly traded company.
Part of the reason I mention all of this is because I’ve been told more than a few times by Angelenos that Cracker Barrel is “racist.” That the South is “racist.” That me flirting with moving there = turning a blind eye to a checkered history much dirtier than the games innocently displayed outside their stores.
When I was younger, I was a militant vegetarian. A staunch feminist. A persuasive liberal. A “progressive.”
I considered myself “tolerant” and yet, I was quite intolerant of anybody who disagreed with me. I remember penning an essay in my psych class about how much I hated intolerance. My teacher noted my hypocrisy.
I bring this up because my own politics have changed since having a child and living a more “straight” life. I stopped being a cookie cutter pro-choice, pro-gay, anti-Republican feminist and I started thinking, policy by policy, situation by situation about the world as it presented itself to me. I stopped being predictable.
In this process, I’ve come to realize how truly intolerant I’ve been to people who live differently than me. While flaring up like a rash at protesters outside a gay and lesbian rally, I failed to see how I was part of the problem. I failed to see that I was the other side of that intolerant coin.
Now, I look at it like this. How can I ask conservatives to “accept” my life choices, if I don’t accept theirs? How can I ask people to stop trying to change me when I am trying to change them?
I have no idea how they were raised, what they believe and why, what a day in their life looks like, really, or why they are pro-Military, for example. Why they are pro-life, for example. Why their religion is so engrained in their culture and family and community, not unlike the way driving a luxury car in a designer dress to a movie premiere is a spiritual experience to an Angeleno.
I believed in my self-righteousness for so long that it blinded me.
What does this have to do with Cracker Barrel? While I can’t stand behind discrimination, obviously, what I can get behind is change. Transformation. What I can support is strong roots that allow the trees to sway. When I was a feminist, I wanted everything and everybody to change yesterday. After all, they had been wrong for so long! What I didn’t take into consideration was that everybody didn’t and couldn’t think like me. Whether age, geography, religion, nationality, life experience or simply different mindsets came into play, I wasn’t always going to win.
Something happened when I took a step back and began looking at life through a different lens. Yes, I can still be an activist. Yes, I can still protest, fundraise, spread awareness on social media, curate conversations, write blog posts, and engage friends and family in dialogue about politics and gender issues, but I don’t have to convince anybody of anything and I can keep my views to myself sometimes! I don’t have to “save” the world.
Another point to mention is that there is a reverence for others and their unique passageway through life that comes along with true tolerance. I actually learn so much more when I shut my mouth and listen.
Visiting Iowa in 2011, I went to the Iowa State Fair where prized livestock are fawned over like satin gloves at Bloomies. Normally, I would never enter a gigantic room with caged animals I knew were about to die. It would be too much for me and I’d no doubt lecture whoever owned these animals and probably get kicked out.
That day, though, I decided to experience the Midwest as natives do. I watched these heaving, dehydrated, visibly exhausted and miserable pigs laid flat in small pens and I offered my love to the pigs without judgment of their owners. I recognized that I could not end animal slaughter that summer day in Iowa.
I spoke at length with a dairy farmer about her treatment of cows, unable to help myself from asking about the ethics of their entrapment. What I saw was that she was kinder to these animals that any vegan has ever been to me. These cows were harmonious. I wasn’t going to change her mind. She didn’t have to change mine. But she did open it.
For these reasons, I can eat at Cracker Barrel with a clean conscience. Because I respect the South. I don’t have to agree with everything that happens there to love it.
So, let’s get back to my first time at Cracker Barrel!
At each table, you can happily play peg solitaire. This particular peg solitaire board has a snarky rating system. So, while you await the complimentary cornbread and biscuits you find out whether:
I NEVER get less than two pegs. I’ll settle for “pretty smart,” I guess. (Unless anybody knows how to WIN this game?)
Before getting wound up about losing, and just before my sweetie dials up a cheat sheet on his iPhone, the food comes!
As a pescetarian (I eat fish and the rest of me is a vegetarian, hence pescetarian!) my favorite pick off the Fancy Fixin’s menu is the Grilled Rainbow Trout. It comes with baby carrots and steak fries. I love getting the vegetarian vegetable soup first as an appetizer. If I haven’t stuffed my face with too many bottomless biscuits, then I can actually enjoy my meal.
There’s a summer menu, that includes:
Cracker Barrel serves traditional Southern cuisine, ie: Comfort Food!
On the way out, I perused the Old Country Store and picked out some cute eyelet dresses for Daisy, and snagged a few scented candles, cutesy signs and picked up a Blake Shelton CD. We returned two more times—that week.
So far, I’ve visited Cracker Barrel’s in: Texas, Arizona, Tennessee, Nevada, and Utah. What I love so much is that it is like being transported into a different era, a different time in space, a different stage is set and I am nowhere near Los Angeles. It’s not uncommon to hear guests speaking about God, about family, about tradition, about local gatherings, about church, about the Old Country Store and what’s in it that day, about their food (without mention of fat or calories).
It’s for those reasons and so many more, not the least of which are the local relics and old time black & white photos of the owner’s family pinned to the wall, that I enjoy being transported to an unfamiliar, yet achingly fulfilling locale. And I’ll never apologize for it. Not when it’s compared to Denny’s (seriously, people?) or when it’s called out on its past. (God knows, I have my own past.)
Cracker Barrel is like that one friend who you just can’t get mad at. When you look at her all you see is her beauty and how fun she is, and all of the shit she did wrong before just melts away. Like that time in the Nashville location by the Opryland Hotel, when the woman bussing our table threw a handful of napkins in my face. I just smile to myself. Maybe she was having a bad day.
That’s how Cracker Barrel has taught me true tolerance. Through my stomach.
Darrah Le Montre is a writer and journalist and devoted mom. Her work has been published by Marie Claire, Cosmopolitan, The Fix and nudie blog SuicideGirls.