I have a confession. I really like Cracker Barrel. Never mind that its rocking chair-crowded front porch is perched on the edge of an interstate. Beneath all those washer boards and John Deere mugs is a landmark of my childhood.
On the long drive home for the holidays, a Cracker Barrel signaled that we had crossed the Mason-Dixon Line back into God’s Country. Our family hailed from Alabama but lived for a while in Detroit and St. Louis, where Dad was an NFL coach. We’d drive home on Christmas Eve or December 26, and Cracker Barrel was the only thing open.
It was usually one of the first stops on the trip. My old man drove the route with the intensity of Jerry Reed in Smokey and the Bandit and once famously passed me a Coke bottle rather than stop for a restroom. Because we usually started to travel at night, by dawn I would watch for the billboards with the brown-and-yellow logo—32 miles, 17 miles, 5 miles… the wait seemed to last forever.
A 10-year-old does not distinguish real from authentic, or roll their eyes at the corny old ads of Ty Cobb selling tobacco or even notice the sweatshirts spelling World’s Greatest Grandma in floral appliqué. I just could not wait to get real country ham and biscuits. (In Detroit, salty country ham did not exist. My grandmother Leila would occasionally mail it to me from the Winn-Dixie along with a can of boiled peanuts.)
At the restaurant, my mom used the pay phone to call her folks to let them know our progress. I was allotted one toy. Most often it was fake dog poop, a whoopee cushion, or a corncob pipe—anything that would make my grandfather laugh or annoy my sister. We waited for our breakfast while playing that infamous golf-tee board game where leaving four or more tees meant you were an eg-no-ra-moose.
The restaurant always had holiday music playing and a great-smelling fire going in a huge rock fireplace, usually with a Christmas tree nearby. My family would gather ’round the fire and eat our holiday biscuits, not caring if the fire and the biscuits were franchised up and down the South’s interstates. For us, it meant we were almost home.
New York Times best-selling author Ace Atkins plans to leave a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle for Santa.
**Note: Cracker Barrel closes at 2 p.m. on Christmas Eve and is closed Christmas.