Thanksgiving: "We went to Cracker Barrel!"

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusmailFacebooktwittergoogle_plusmail
1 of 13  

My parents are vague about who suggested eating at Cracker Barrel for our first Thanksgiving Dinner. It doesn’t strike them as important enough to remember. It certainly wasn’t a suggestion based on experience, because we’d never even been to the place before.

My family had been living in the States for four years (we originally hail, for the most part, from Great Britain) before my parents decided to celebrate Thanksgiving at all. I don’t think those Thanksgivingless years had anything to do with a conscious resistance of the holiday. The lack of celebration probably had more to do with a total ignorance of the occasion, limited kitchen space, and the price of turkeys. My mother would, with a penny-pincher’s logic, head off to the shop to buy a turkey in the days following Thanksgiving: that’s when the birds went on sale.

This behavior shocked the neighbors, even if they did appreciate a good bargain on poultry. Thanksgiving was so simple: gather, eat, be thankful, take an afternoon nap. Why couldn’t we just ­do it?

So it was with no small degree of excitement that I found myself in our station wagon, headed to that “large wooden structure full of white people,” as urbandictionary.com puts it. I possessed, as only a despairingly shy ten-year-old can, a keen desire to fit in, and celebrating Thanksgiving seemed a step in the right direction.

I don’t, however, remember a thing I ate. I know I ate turkey. I just know. Each year, Cracker Barrel opens its doors to hungry Thanksgiving diners – and there are lots – and serves up plates of traditional holiday fare: turkey, potatoes, vegetables, all covered in gravy.

What I do remember is sitting in my sixth-grade classroom the following Monday. Our teacher went around the class, asking each of us what we ate for Thanksgiving Dinner. I was ­so glad we’d finally celebrated, so glad I had a proper answer for my teacher that day. After listening to stories about various grandmothers’ pecan pies and sweet potato casseroles, Mrs. McKnight leveled her gaze at me.

“What about you, Susie?”

“We went to Cracker Barrel!” I proclaimed, and perceived the silence that followed as shocked jealousy.

***

These days, my parents are assimilated enough to be embarrassed by our virgin Thanksgiving Cracker Barrel venture. In fact, as I write, I have texted my mother: can she really not remember whose idea it was to go? She replies quickly: she can’t remember if it was her or my dad. Why?

Ildar Sagdejev

Ildar Sagdejev

“I’m writing about it,” I say.

“Oh no!” she replies, and I know she wishes I would just forget the incident once and for all. My fixation on the company has lasted years now and she is well aware that the fact that my first Thanksgiving was spent at Cracker Barrel serves as much of the foundation of my interest.

After all, Thanksgiving 1996 proved to be the only one my family spent at a Cracker Barrel. Since then, we have been lucky enough to either get invited to other families’ meals or, as is the case the last few years, we have gathered together to cook the meal in my parents’ kitchen. Our Cracker Barrel days are largely behind us, tucked away with other memories of Not Quite Belonging.

But they’re not behind me, and that’s why, in 2011, I decided to write my Master’s thesis on Cracker Barrel. And while they were bathed in the clunky language of higher academia, the 126 pages of that thesis ultimately tried to answer one simple question: why did we end up at Cracker Barrel for our first Thanksgiving Dinner?

***

When I first began working on my thesis, much of my research involved dissecting the impersonal, corporate side of Cracker Barrel – the side marketed to the American consumer. Soon after beginning, I found myself in touch with Julie Davis, a spokeswoman for the company. She relayed a story to me about a first-time diner at a Cracker Barrel in an undisclosed location somewhere north of the Mason-Dixon line: when asked if he wanted grits with his breakfast, he replied, “Sure, I’ll try one.”[1]

I still wonder if the story is true, or simply Cracker Barrel lore. It is, after all, a charming anecdote relaying the endearing naiveté of a regionally ignorant customer, one that stresses the unique experience and cuisine, provided by Cracker Barrel, of the South (albeit in a non-southern location). Whatever the case, the story is significant concerning one thing: Cracker Barrel operates on a reputation built on its southern origins. Beyond that, though, the company markets the ideas of “rural,” “southern,” and “old-fashioned” interchangeably, with all of those terms falling under the umbrella of “America,” with a capital A.

When asked how the ideals embodied by an old country store were still relevant to a generation increasingly removed from them (in fact, young enough to always have been removed from them), Davis said that the “core things” that Cracker Barrel offered “go from generation to generation”: things like a home away from home, and a “happy place” to come to. She also remarked that having a family meal is a phenomenon that “seems to be rare in America” – and something that Cracker Barrel claims to offer.[2]

Looked at from that viewpoint, it makes sense: my family simply went to a happy place to eat an important American family meal! Thus the popularity of Cracker Barrel’s Thanksgiving Dinner, and the chain’s willingness to open its doors on that day. Nevertheless, I kept encountering too much company-generated spin about the so-called realness of it all. I didn’t trust it. I needed to get closer to Cracker Barrel.

***

Most of us have been inside at least one Cracker Barrel. One’s enough: go in one and you’ve essentially been in them all. Cracker Barrel’s signature look, no matter what the location, is one of carefully managed clutter, with objects spread densely across the walls and hanging suspended from the ceilings. This standard décor is outside as well as inside the building: rusty Coke signs, anonymous sepia and black and white portraits of men, women, and children, and objects that range from the harmlessly random (a framed ad for sugar) to the strange and disconcerting (a saw hanging from the ceiling).

The revelatory thing about Cracker Barrel’s décor is that every single item hanging from the restaurant’s walls and ceilings is authentic, in the sense that not a single artifact is reproduced for Cracker Barrel.[3] On the company’s website there is the complete story of the Singleton family, who have been decorating Cracker Barrels since 1969, when it was founded.

Billy Hathorn

Billy Hathorn

Kathleen and Don Singleton, Cracker Barrel founder Dan Evins’s first set of in-laws, owned an antique shop in Evins’s hometown of Lebanon, Tennessee, and agreed to help decorate his new business venture. They stepped up their work when the company began expanding, shopping for antiques at various shows. In 1979 their son, Larry, started on the job and is now the man responsible for much of the work done at the décor warehouse in Lebanon.[4]

Such is the attention paid to Larry Singleton on the company’s website that it didn’t take long before I stopped believing in him as a real person and more as an inflated company character. For a chain as large as Cracker Barrel to have maintained a direct tie to its origins seemed suspicious to me, and I didn’t place too much credence in Larry as a truly active person in the company. My lack of trust, however, was bothering me, in part because I’m naturally trusting to the point of being gullible. In other words, I felt bad for not believing a little more in Cracker Barrel.

Finally, in mid-September 2011, I had a breakthrough with the company: I was allowed inside the décor warehouse. I was speaking with Jeanne Ludington, a company spokeswoman who sounded puzzled by my interest in the company, and seemed to want to make sure that I was not going out of my way to visit Lebanon.[5] Nevertheless, she promised me a tour of the décor warehouse. I couldn’t believe it.

Cracker Barrel’s headquarters are located off of a wide road two exits west of the main Lebanon exit on I-40. They consist of four large buildings spread across a pleasant, neatly manicured green that featured walking paths and lots of trees. Cars drove slowly. Employees on break power-walked together. I was mystified by the size of the compound, and drove wide-eyed towards Building 4, as per Jeanne’s directions.

Building 4 was a large, neat building with a large, neat reception area. There were tall windows, lots of natural light, and sofas to sit on. I signed in at reception, where an elderly woman named Peggy was hurriedly fielding phone call after phone call. She looked like anybody’s kindly grandma, and acted the part too. Taking a break from the switchboard for a moment, she looked at me and apologized for having a “person in her ear” before answering the next call.

Then Jeanne walked up to me. In her fifties or sixties, she was dressed in business attire and held a phone and a notepad. Her brisk manner conveyed a sense of business and urgency and tightly controlled patience. She introduced herself to me and led me straight to the décor warehouse, just a few minutes’ walk from Building 4.

Cracker Barrel’s décor warehouse is where all the items that adorn Cracker Barrels are stored and organized before they are sent out to new stores. It is colossal, and full of tall, wide shelves lined up one after another. It’s reminiscent of an IKEA, or a Home Depot: clean, vast, organized. Objects are classed into groups according to description, such as “Oval Children” (oval portraits of children), “Traffic lights” (you can guess) and so on. There were children’s tricycles, old cleaning equipment, cast iron pots.

As Jeanne led me into the warehouse, she mentioned that Larry might be around. And then, as if on cue, he appeared. Larry Singleton, of www.crackerbarrel.com fame! He shook my hand and smiled and looked every part his online persona: just as in his photograph on the company website, he was wearing a plaid shirt and suspenders over blue jeans. His hair was the same, his glasses the same, and his demeanor – friendly, with a seemingly genuine enthusiasm about his work – was convincing. He even had a strong southern accent. I was thrilled, shocked, subdued. It was as if a cartoon character had come to life.

Larry was real, and he looked just like he did in the pictures, and here I was in Cracker Barrel’s very real décor warehouse, full of genuinely old things! Everything about Cracker Barrel was real!

Alan Poizner/Courtesy of Cracker Barrel

Alan Poizner/Courtesy of Cracker Barrel

Larry’s office was cozy, and full of old objects. I spotted some sort of animal pelt on a shelf behind his desk, and I noticed that he had a dated Cracker Barrel menu stuck on the back of his door. I asked if there had ever been any contentious or controversial objects displayed in a Cracker Barrel – by accident or not. Larry said the company had always avoided using any Civil War memorabilia whatsoever, and definitely never displayed the Confederate flag or anything similar. “We’re just an old country store,” he said, quoting the website. Or was he? Where had I heard that first? Did he just happen to say it? I was confused, pleased, star-struck. I left Cracker Barrel’s headquarters worried that my research had reached an impasse: after all, how do you spartanly dissect something when it’s so real and meaningful to another person?

Not that Cracker Barrel was that meaningful to me at any point. My family’s trip there in 1996 had, for me, taken on value only as a potentially revealing, almost anthropological incident: revelatory of our ignorance as immigrants, revelatory of a certain element of Cracker Barrel’s adverting and appeal. And so my research went on. I found, however, that my focus had shifted from analyzing the company’s large-scale marketing strategies (in order, I suppose, to find out what had worked on my family), to puzzling over the dichotomy of a large national chain that still maintains ties to its roots, however tenuous sometimes.

Well, dichotomies are indeed puzzling. But I know why we went to Cracker Barrel for Thanksgiving: because lots of people do. And we might be a little embarrassed about it now, or it might strike some as tacky or strange or even a bit pathetic, but it is what it is. Cracker Barrel might be a huge chain restaurant with a loaded past of mediocre food, reported racist and prejudice tendencies, and the type of uniformity associated with much roadside convenience establishments, but it has also come to represent the side of America that much of the population has access to: the affordable side, the cozy-hearth-home side (however drably executed, whether by food or by atmosphere), the middle-class-America side.

Plus, the company knows its audience: Cracker Barrel emailed me today. All locations are open from 6 am – 10 pm on Thanksgiving Day.


[1]  Julie Davis, telephone interview by author, April 8, 2011.

[2] Julie Davis, telephone interview by author, April 8, 2011.

[3]  It was revelatory to me and would be, I predict, revelatory to most people who have stepped inside a Cracker Barrel.

[4] Cracker Barrel, “Meet Larry Singleton.”

[5] I was going out of my way to visit Lebanon.

1 of 13