Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Cracker Barrel

This week, we’re going to bend the rules for a special case. We went to a place that we’ve been before, not here in the Jefferson County, St. Louis area, but still we’ve been many times before.
Over the holiday period we traveled to Cadiz, Kentucky where I was born and raised. My parents still live just up the road in an even smaller town, Cerulean. We stayed overnight at a hotel in Cadiz since Angel has cat allergies and my parents have cat. We were there the weekend before Christmas to celebrate their sixtieth anniversary and a renewal of their vows.
Arriving late in Cadiz after dropping Adam off to spend the night with his aunt in Murray, Angel and I were hungry. Fortunately the hotel alongside the interstate also shared a parking lot with a Cracker Barrel. We had eaten there before as it is well known as my parents’ favorite restaurant. Just about any time we are in the area we get a meal at this very place. We ordered, ate and were quite satisfied.
The next day after the ceremonies the Bentley family met up in Cerulean in the big, drafty 110 year old house and exchanged gifts. Among them was a gift bag from my parents that held a few small items including a big bag of shelled pecans, always a favorite, and a gift card, you guessed it, for Cracker Barrel.
We did not go while we were in Kentucky, we decided to save it for another day.
That other day popped up New Year’s Day. We had burned out on the snacks and cheeses and veggies and dips we had fixed the night before. Those things were just fine but left a hole in our food wheel. We craved a full meal. We went to Cracker Barrel.

Just off I-55
Herculaneum MO.

The Place:
Herky, as it is quaintly called by the locals is just four miles north of Festus. The town has quite a history which I’ll try to touch on later.*
It seems that all Cracker Barrels are exactly alike; rustic large timbered structures built to look homey and cozy and country house-like. Inside the timbers are all exposed and a large fire crackles in a huge fireplace. The smoky warmth wafted over us as we entered.
The entry is into a store area. To get to the dining area one must first meander a bit through aisles and shelves loaded with rural and colloquial items, sweaters, toy tractors, candles, cards, figurines, and retro candies (Chick-O-Stick!!).
Angel remarked how this location was laid out and stocked EXACTLY like the one in Cadiz. I had noticed the same thing, including the front porch load of ‘Military Rocking Chairs’.
We wandered toward the restaurant area and were quickly seated. Just like in Cadiz, the place was packed. Just like in Cadiz, the hostess and waitress were local and sweet. I insisted that we had the same waitress as we did in Cadiz, Angel disagreed. The seats were rustic, the din was pleasant and the patrons were generally well behaved. They were also, as in Cadiz mostly around or past retirement age. Along the walls were the requisite comfortable rural trinkets and artwork; seed advertisements, sleds, farm tools, jugs and jars, motor oil and gas station signage. I took my seat beneath a large print of Woodrow Wilson which seemed out of place. Wilson was an upper crust New Jersey academic/intellectual progressive, not exactly in place among hardscrabble and Hooterville-style accoutrement. But he was above retirement age in the picture, close enough I suppose.
Adam and Angel played with the golf-tees-in-holes game, which I found too silly, trivial and utterly beneath me to mess with. (meaning, I can’t figure it out) I have decided that the puzzle is in fact impossible to be understood by any sane person, like a Rubik’s cube, poetry, or women in general. (For a discussion and alleged solutions to this little puzzle, you can visit:
http://www.danobrien.ws/PegBoard.html )
I am pretty sure that any actual solution involves a step requiring everyone else to look away for a moment.

The Food:
In Cadiz I’d had the catfish and loved it with one exception, it was in filet form. I prefer nuggets. I let Angel try some of mine then and she was not so particular. This is what she decided to get in Herky. I debated and finally decided to take a chance on the sirloin. After I ordered, Angel placed hers, and they offered her the choice between filet and nuggets. I swore at the waitress under my breath, but not far enough under as Angel frowned at me in that way she quite often does when I embarrass her publicly.
Adam chose the gravy laden chicken fried steak simply because he is his mother’s son.
When given the choice of cornbread vs. biscuits, we all chose biscuits this time. In Cadiz I’d asked for the cornbread and was pretty disappointed. It was dry and bland. “Home-style” is how it was billed. I just didn’t care for it. Maybe I’m spoiled but it would have been better with a couple more Tbsp’s of sugar, or something.
For sides I chose a house salad and baked potato.
Oh yeah, tea, tea and Coke. Fresh but not Luzianne.
My salad arrived very quickly, it was cold. I don’t mean uncooked, I mean cold, as in nearly frozen. It looked great and was in fact quite attractive with tomato chunks in a ring around iceberg lettuce which encircled shredded cheese, bacon bits and red onion slivers. It had obviously been prepared well ahead of time and placed literally on ice for a few hours. Sure it stayed fresh, but it was like eating produce ice cream, complete with brain freeze. Once it finally slid closer toward room temperature, it was much, much better, though the Italian dressing was salty, too much garlic.
Shortly our meals arrived. The steak looked good, the potato was perfect. It was a large, slow-baked potato slightly crispy on the outside, swimming in enough butter and sour cream to drain a dairy.
Speaking of butter. The biscuits arrived with the promised ‘real butter.’ The butter came in teaspoon sized disposable peel-back packets. The butter, like the salad had been on ice. The biscuits were served warm, not hot, and there was simply not enough residual heat in them to completely soften the rock-hard butter cubes. It was un-spreadable and therefore sat in one spot on the biscuit for quite some time before it finally softened enough to spread around. There is no need for this. Keep the butter below freezing and it will last just as long, but will be more usable after it is served.
The steak was a bit dry and unremarkable, doused with A-1 resolved the issue but if you have to put A-1 on a steak to make it edible, it’s not really a good steak. I probably won’t order it again.
The fish and the chicken fried steak were wolfed down; the spare biscuits were slipped into my coat pocket.

Summary;
I love Cracker Barrel. We will go back and I heartily recommend it. I can’t recommend the steak or the cornbread, but other than that most of the offerings are simply awesome. The meat loaf, roast, catfish, chicken fried steak are always excellent. The hush puppies are delightful, and most of the sides are near perfect. I went out on a limb with the steak, I won’t do that again, but as for everything else, top notch. The price makes it even better. Our three meals cost less than forty dollars and they were all full meals with multiple sides and complimentary biscuits/cornbread. There is a good reason these places are always near full.
I will not be grading this visit as I have done others. It simply wouldn’t be fair. I knew mostly what to order and what to avoid, something I don’t know in the first-time places. What I can say is this; of the two ‘Barrels’ I ate at in a two week span, though separated by nearly two hundred miles, one was exactly the same as the other in décor, layout and food selection and quality.


*Herculaneum:

From Wikipedia.com:
“Herculaneum was laid out by Moses Austin and Sameul Hammond in 1808, and named after the ancient Roman town of Herculaneum, destroyed by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius. Austin is said to have chosen the name because the limestone ledges overlooking the Mississippi River resembled a Roman amphitheatre. Lead cannonballs from Herculaneum were used in the War of 1812. Lead smelting is still the major industry in this town.”

It is impossible to describe this small town without eventually mentioning the phrase ‘lead smelter’. The five hundred fifty foot tall stacks from the enormous Doe Run operation are visible from miles away.
This smelter is the only primary lead smelter remaining in the U.S. If you have a lead-acid battery in your American car, there is about an 80% chance that it contains lead that was produced from this one facility.
In the pre-robot days this smelter employed most of the town. It provided prosperity for decades as lead ore from the many nearby mines was trucked in, processed, and shipped back out.
As you can imagine this also became a problem. Sure, NOW we know what lead can do to a child’s brain. As a one company town however, this was not really made an issue until the plant had already been in operation for over a hundred years. Doe Run has been taken to task, and in turn they have spent several years buying up property and digging up topsoil. The town is littered with official air quality measuring equipment and the company, as well as we the taxpayers have been spending tens of millions to clean up the century-old mess.
But don’t let this scare you off. Herculaneum is a charming town with delightful people. A lengthy visit, even with the smelter running full-out will infect you with less lead than you would get in a single afternoon of squeezing sinkers onto fishing lines.

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