Mrs. Pincus and I got married in July 1984. For our honeymoon, we drove to Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida — foreshadowing what would become a nearly annual trip for us and the eventual extended Pincus family. The drive was a real adventure for the newly-wed Pincuses. As Mrs. P sat behind the wheel of our little maroon Datsun, I studied the map provided by AAA and acted as navigator for our route down Southbound I-95. We stopped at outlet stores and roadside stands offering useless souvenir tchotchkes of whatever locale we were passing through. As we ventured deeper and deeper into the uncharted southern states (well... uncharted for us anyway), we came upon some establishments we had never seen before. We ate our first dinner as husband and wife (aside from the one we had at our wedding — a meal which we both actually skipped), at a place called Aunt Sarah's Pancake House, adjacent to the hotel at which we stopped on our first night. Aunt Sarah's was once a small but thriving chain in the southern United States, content with its status and not threatened by national chains like IHOP. Just as long as Aunt Sarah kept slinging pancakes within a specific area, everyone would get along just fine. (After 17 years of "playing nice," Aunt Sarah's has sadly gone out of business.)
Somewhere in North Carolina, we chanced upon our very first Cracker Barrel. We had passed several billboards promising an "old country store" experience, its message illustrated with the help of a friendly-looking country gentleman in a rocking chair leaning on — what else? — a cracker barrel. Up ahead, set back a bit from the six-lanes of I-95, was a rustic little building with a long front porch outfitted with a line of high-backed rocking chairs. Mrs. P veered the car onto the small service road that connected the highway to the parking lot. We parked, walked across the crunchy gravel that covered the lot and stepped up on the porch towards the big wooden entrance doors. Between a few of the rockers were cloth checkerboards on barrels and an array of red and black checkers in position and ready for a new game. The front doors opened to the sound of a tinkling bell, purposely placed to evoke visons of ol' Mr. Drucker or reliable Nels stationed behind the counter of Oleson's Mercantile.
With beauty shots of fried chicken and fresh sunny-side up eggs splashed across forty-foot billboards, we were of the understanding that Cracker Barrel was a restaurant. But once inside, we were momentarily startled, believing we had mistakenly entered the annual Mayberry Church Bazaar, half expecting to find Aunt Bee and Clara Edwards duking it out over a box of Christmas decorations. Cracker Barrel offers the best of both worlds for the typical vacationer traveling by automobile. There's a roomful of pseudo-country crafts, knick-knacks and clothing along with a large selection of snacks, condiments, beverages and cast-iron vessels in which they can be prepared. Tucked in a nearly-obscured corner is the entrance to the actual restaurant — a large, open, plank-floored dining room with tables attended to by a battalion of gingham-and-denim dressed young ladies just trying get enough money to get through the next semester of college.
Let me tell you something, as a person descended from the group of people who fought on the non-bigoted side of the Civil War, I was a wee bit uneasy meandering around the faux-homey displays in the Cracker Barrel retail area. As a person who was raised Jewish — albeit a very casual and minimally observant version of Judaism — my feeling of uneasiness was heightened. There was just something about the place that made me feel I didn't belong. From my standpoint, Cracker Barrel is not for everyone. Sure, on the surface, it appears very welcoming and very hospitable — a comforting oasis on the road to one's vacation destination. But, there's an underlying feeling of scrutiny and a palpable air of non-Heimisha that permeates Cracker Barrel. I can't quite explain it, but ask one of your Jewish friends (assuming you have at least one). They'll know what I'm talking about. They'll know that you shouldn't dare ask for a bagel to accompany your country breakfast plate. (As the kids say: "IYKYK.")
Over the years and through many journeys down I-95, my family and I stopped at Cracker Barrels. We noticed that locations began popping up more frequently and closer in proximity to one another. We even ate in Cracker Barrel's dining rooms one or two times, often finding it very difficult to find an entrée (or even a side order) that fit into the criteria of a family that keeps Kosher (like mine). A lot of Cracker Barrel's victual offerings are proudly, if not stealthily, cooked in or with some sort of fat rendered from an animal that doesn't possess a cloven hoof or chew its cud. (You have the internet. Google the "rules of kashrut" and settle back for a wild read.) Pancakes or eggs were a safe bet, but corn muffins and hash browns were inexplicably prepared with bacon fat. After a while, the Pincuses wised up and stopped elsewhere for meals along the 900+ mile trip. We still stopped at Cracker Barrels here and there, just not to eat.
Just last weekend, Mrs. P and I attended a collector show in Maryland, a couple of hours drive from our suburban Philadelphia home. The COVID-19 pandemic, coupled with some pressing family issues, have kept us grounded for the past few years... more specifically, keeping my wife from engaging in one of her favorite activities — road tripping. Mrs. Pincus loves to drive. Loves it! Almost as much as I hate driving. In our nearly forty years of marriage, we've driven to a lot of places. (Well, she's driven. I just sat in the passenger's seat and gazed out the window like a puppy.) But Mrs. P loves tooling along, window down, wind blowing, fiddling with the radio buttons and taking in the whole carefree experience. On our way home from Maryland, we found ourselves on familiar I-95 in the once-familiar position of looking for a place to have dinner... harkening back to those long-gone days of checking a AAA TripTik for rest stops. Of course, the TripTik has gone the way of the dinosaur in these instant gratification days of the internet. Now I just merely Googled "restaurants near me" and, with the mobile GPS coordinates emitted by my phone, the glorious internet guided us to a selection of chain and local restaurants available at the next exit. One of those places was a Cracker Barrel. Mrs. P lit up. "Hey, let's give Cracker Barrel a shot!" (We had briefly decided on Red Robin, but weren't committed.)
Cracker Barrel is an interesting diversion from real life. Try the pancakes. You get your own little bottle of syrup...and maybe a judging glance, if you're lucky.
Y'all come back now, y'hear?