An Englishman Says Bad Things About Cracker Barrel. Is that Unamerican or What?

cracker barrel dumplings.jpg
Photos by Gavin Cleaver
Cracker Barrel's chicken and dumplings. Mmm, doesn't the picture make you want to dig in?
I did an article about various area chain restaurant options a few months back because I was intrigued, as a stranger to these shores, by all the fanciful and mysterious options available to me. I still go to Waffle House all the time, and I don't care what people think. I just love hash browns.

Basically, then, I have a very high tolerance for bad American food from a chain restaurant, much to the dismay of my arteries. I had been able to resist the somewhat scary-looking Cracker Barrel chain up until now though, as frankly I figured that somewhere that was both a restaurant and a rocking chair shop probably wouldn't be too hot on the whole well-cooked food front. Someone suggested I went, though, as one of those scared-Englishman-in-Southern-establishment type articles, so I bit the bullet and hit one on my way up to Memphis last weekend.

cracker barrel meatloaf.jpg
Ground meat, filler and tomato sauce -- that's a meatloaf all right.
Stopping in Texarkana, which presumably exists because "WARNING: NOW ENTERING TEXAS" signs seemed too harsh, I realized that the place was in fact a weird twee gift shop with a restaurant tacked on. Any place where you have to go into the gift shop to pay for your food has its priorities wrong if it aims to serve anything approaching quality fare, surely. Taking my place in what, given the amount of antique drinks adverts littering the walls, looked like a well-preserved hut from Fallout 3, I was confused by a menu that claimed to offer all the Southern favourites, but no hash browns, except in casserole form. What the crikey is a hash brown casserole? Is it just a soggy hash brown? Bemused but undeterred, I opted for chicken and dumplings (stupidly, STUPIDLY thinking this might bear some resemblance to British chicken and dumplings), meatloaf, and a fried catfish sandwich, between my stepson, Richard and I.

First, the chicken and dumplings. I have never seen anything so unappealingly presented. It was like someone drank a gallon of milk, waited for parts of it to curdle a bit into oddly-shaped balls, and then regurgitated it onto a plate. I couldn't even tell what was chicken and what was dumpling, and gingerly tasting parts of the mess didn't help in this respect. Is a dumpling over here simply a lump of barely-cooked dough presented in whatever shape it happens to fall in? Was this white gravy? What on earth is the sauce? Did they make it and then subsequently remove the flavor? If this is a Southern favourite, what dishes did the South reject? Richard's review: "It tasted like the taste after you burp, but worse."

cracker barrel casserole.jpg
They made a hash of hash browns, which somehow became a "casserole."
Jesus. What a mess. The catfish was slightly better, I suppose, although what's wrong with just battering a normal fish which might have a little more flavor than a catfish, I couldn't tell you. Again, the South has spoken. Much like the chicken and "dumplings", it didn't really taste of anything. As for the meatloaf? Well, I would eat anything for the Observer, but I wouldn't eat that. That's a complete lie; it's just a good pun. I did eat the meatloaf, and it strikes me that any meat that needs flavouring with tomato sauce, which in my opinion is strictly a potato-based condiment, has not done well. It was like someone took meat, mixed it with sawdust for a bit, and then painted it haphazardly with tomato ketchup. Bear in mind I like Waffle House. That's how bad this was.

Maybe they should stick to selling rocking chairs, but if those are anything like the food, they'll have square rockers and smell weird. Who comes here for food?! Maybe those who wish to have a meal out but can't afford a nice restaurant? Well, at Waffle House I could have got eight (EIGHT) large hash browns covered in everything they have for the cost of the meal. That sounds delightful. I'd much rather take me on a date there, and I wouldn't have employees trying to shill badly made "Southern" chintz. You mock the English for the blandness of their food, but this was worse than overcooked scampi and chips. This made Dickey's look like a perfectly prepared dinner, cooked from scratch by an expert chef. What a disaster. Never again.

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51 comments
hix.miblue.john
hix.miblue.john

If you have ever visited England before, you are probably wondering what this Brit is complaining about. I was starving to get back to America as I could not find any food palatable. Fish and chips were survival food and had it not been for the thick barley beer I would have surely wasted away. So Mr. Englishman, critic, take your dislikes and fly on back to your meat pies.  I dont care for Cracker Barrel fare either but its a feast compared to what our English cousins put on the table.  

J_A_
J_A_

Chicken & dumplings looks like jizz on a plate

markzero
markzero

I remember being in the restaurant with my family on a trip and seeing Tammye Faye Bakker when a fan started fawning over her. And then getting sick in the car and puking up blackberry cobbler by the side of the road half an hour later. I don't think I was carsick so much as simply that the blackberry cobbler had sugar crusted on top that looked like shiny rock salt, and Tammye Faye's mascara resembled smears of blackberry too much, and so those images kept alternating in my head until I had to get it all out. And that's probably my best memory of Cracker Barrel.

I miss the big old Stuckey's', with the long sagging roofs and the peanut brittle that was as disgustingly pink or red as unhealthy gums.

Scruffygeist
Scruffygeist

I love you for the dead-accurate Fallout reference alone.

donjames2011
donjames2011

In the immortal words of Sam from Sales  " My cousin got fired from Waffle House for being too nasty". All seriousness aside, I love Waffle House and hate Cracker Barrel. I stopped in the CB in Texarkana one morning and got sick as hell. I havent been in one since.

alteredjustice
alteredjustice

I've never liked Cracker Barrel that much, either. I think old people just like to rock in the rocking chairs without paying for them.

Kristie Hester
Kristie Hester

To say all Southern food is represented by what is on the menu at Cracker Barrel is doing yourself, and true fine Southern food, an injustice!

Charice Shannon
Charice Shannon

My roommate worked there for a short time...short because while in training she was so disgusted by how nasty they were she quit and reported them to the Health Dept.

Joel Killtronix
Joel Killtronix

While I'm not defending Cracker Barrel in any way, what the hell does a British Guy know about good food?

Marc C. Socolov
Marc C. Socolov

Been there once...Smelled like a nursing home...Can't fathom going back until it's field trip day when I am in one...

G_David
G_David

Okay, I'm going to be a dick and point out one of my biggest current grammatical pet peeves:

"between my stepson, Richard and I." 

It's ME, between my stepson and ME!

Juli Walters
Juli Walters

Took my Dutch guy there this last weekend, he was not a fan either.

ChrisDangerShow
ChrisDangerShow

Cracker Barrel is the place I go with my parents when they want to eat..Myself, id rather find a place that serves a good english brekkie w/o the puddings and a pot of builders tea, heavy on the sugar and milk or even a decent fish n chip w/ mushy peas and chip shop gravy? Suggestions Gavin?

Gavin Cleaver
Gavin Cleaver

Chris - the best one I've found so far is at the Abbey up on Denton Square.

Chris Danger
Chris Danger

I think British Guy would be doing cartwheels if Cracker Barrell offered a Full English Brekkie w/ a pot of Builders Tea to wash it down..Speaking of, where can I find one around here, save the black/white puddings?

Scott W. Hatfield
Scott W. Hatfield

nailed it. stick with breakfast offerings and all will be well.

Joshstruckoutagain
Joshstruckoutagain

Meh to the Barrel.  Gavin please tell us you sampled a view Memphis BBQ joints while you were up there.  I kinda dug the coleslaw topped pulled pork sammiches last time I was in Memphis, and I dug Graceland big time..needed more tv's in the Jungleroom though.

nammer
nammer

actually, Cracker Barrel was cool 35 years ago when our family went to Tennessee on vacation (I know, but we did)  they had great country ham...but then they started expanding and hating on the gays and the blacks...so I'll never eat at one of their shitty restaurants again...if this is southern food, we should have let the assholes leave the US back in the day

kergo1spaceship
kergo1spaceship

I took a gander at that pic again, and that's shite is as bad as the IHOP pot roast; and ironically,both come from a bag on the Sysco truck. 

kergo1spaceship
kergo1spaceship

CB had it's day like 13 years ago; then they rapidly expanded, and now it's one step above McDonald's  The breakfast used to be great!  And shopping for trinkets; who doesn't like that?  We had an iron cat we bought at CB for, like 20 years. 

dixiechickidie
dixiechickidie

Your description of the chicken and dumpling was cringe inducing. Bravo.

Did you play the peg game?

ScottsMerkin
ScottsMerkin topcommenter

I liked their breakfast, but i once had dinner at a Barrel in Kerrville and Ive never even driven into the parking lot of one again.

EdD.
EdD.

Cracker Barrel plays on all the worst stereotypes of the South while serving up the worst possible representation of actual Southern cooking.

tcooksey
tcooksey

Well that was pretty funny.  I don't eat at Waffle House or Cracker Barrel, but it is still pretty funny.

RasAlgethi
RasAlgethi

His first mistake was not getting breakfast food.

ewanmacdonald
ewanmacdonald

Couldn't agree more with this. Cracker Barrel is the worst place on earth. Meanwhile large hash browns topped, smothered and covered is the greatest thing ever.

kergo1spaceship
kergo1spaceship

@hix.miblue.john 


I once operated a large corporate cafeteria when I was a young man, and we would have 'nationality day"; inevitably, Britain or England would show up on the spinning wheel of nations.   It was actually eye opening, because I had an African guy show me how to cook a goat (Ethiopian) and such; had a Swedish Guy school me on Swedish fare, which led me to The wooden Spoon in downtown Plano, which was an education in and of itself. 

Now when we got to "Taste of the British Isles", we were stumped, and the best we could come up with was Fish and Chips (nasty) and Shepherd's Pie (effing gross!). 

1dailyreader
1dailyreader

@markzero Stuckey's pecan logs were great.  I think the pink peanut brittle you mention is a peanut rounder..

Myrna.Minkoff-Katz
Myrna.Minkoff-Katz topcommenter

@markzero Google "Catherine O'Hara spoofs Tammy Faye Bakker".  It's a clip from the old SCTV show.

kergo1spaceship
kergo1spaceship

@Marc C. Socolov 

Nice "casual" Facebook pic of you posing, dude. 

Nictacular
Nictacular

@shwhitley Dammit. Why can't a place make a great country ham/chicken sandwiches AND not hate gays and black folks?


JustSaying
JustSaying

@tcooksey Waffle House hashbrowns are awesome. I have never met a person that did not love them. I have also never met anyone that goes to Waffle House before 2:00 AM.

I don't always eat hashbrowns.... but when I do I prefer them all the way minus chili.

ewanmacdonald
ewanmacdonald

@RasAlgethi Restaurants that are only good for breakfast food shouldn't serve other food. IHoP fans claim the same thing. Why would you serve something you know to suck? I just don't get it.

markzero
markzero

@Myrna.Minkoff-Katz Watching SCTV as a kid, late at night when I was supposed to be sleeping, is another fond memory, thanks :)

kergo1spaceship
kergo1spaceship

@JustSaying

last time I had WH, I tried to save "meself" some some money........man, I had the violent, turbulent, slide down a steep embankment at 2 AM shites for 3 days. 


me bum was so bloody my wife had to wheel me around in a cart, so as not to disturb the trembling, volatile +ss volcano!

the only thing worse is an unbridled hunger at Pancho's. 

kergo1spaceship
kergo1spaceship

@ewanmacdonald 


or my original nemesis,  Blimpie's.  I used to call the Blimpie's in Plano everyday in high school.  The Indian feller would answer the phone, "Blimpie's, can I take yer ourda?".

Me......"I'd like Blimpie's"

Guy....."but waht'

Me......"Blimpie's"

Guy......."Now waht?"

Me......"but, but what" (no question implied)

click, and dial tone; and this went on for two years. 

TheCredibleHulk
TheCredibleHulk topcommenter

@dixiechickidie 

Nice metaphor for the Crackerbarrel dining experience.


It's more a description than a name, anyhow.


Authentic southern cookin' this is decidedly not.

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