Eating out in America is the thing everybody does. Food is cheap, service is good and it all comes fast with fries. There are restaurants on every corner with homespun names like Wendy’s, Denny’s, Bob Evans, Perkins and Arby’s.
Then there are the folksy country and western ones, where if you don’t have a Stetson and cowboy boots, you can buy them when you get in the queue. You have to queue even if there is no-one else in the restaurant and there are loads of empty chairs and tables. It is obligatory to be “meeted and greeted”.
Today we went to the “Cracker Barrel Old Country Store” for some “good country cookin’ for travellers and neighbours alike”. It’s one of a chain of restaurants which were founded in Tennessee as long ago as 1969, which I think is before cars and televisions were invented. The rockin’ chair on the front cover of the menu – and for sale on the outside porch – tells you straight away this is where you get to sample Grandma’s home cookin’.
When we get to the front of the queue, we are greeted by Grandma herself who smiles, takes two menus and shuffles off head down past the unlit country fireplace. I guess Grandpa is out in the backyard choppin’ logs right now! Meanwhile, Grandma deftly two steps between the occupied and vacant tables to “a quiet spot by the window” overlookin’ the rockin’ chair porch.
Before we even look at the menu, the waitress arrives to ask if we would like a drink. I’ll swear she is one of the Walton family, maybe Elizabeth or Erin or was it Sue Ellen – or was that Dallas? The usual questions – coffee, tea, juice —— plus fifteen supplemental question depending what you choose. If it’s coffee, this is no Starbucks, so you don’t get cappuccino, espresso or latte – just regular, decaf or iced. Since in my mind regular is more to do with petrol (gas), I settle for tea of the iced variety, because brewin’ hot tea is not a Tennessee speciality.
I look around for the Walton boys, but John Boy, Jason and Jim Bob must be out fishin’ for catfish, which the menu says Grandma cooks with cornmeal and seasonin’.
Now comes the big challenge. Choosin’ from the 64 things in Grandma’s kitchen, most of which I have never had before and half of which I don’t even understand, even after Elizabeth’s explanation.
I pass on the “USDA Choice Chuck Roast” which has been pot roasted for 14 hours. I figure it might be a bit overdone by now —- and anyway I don’t want to get into trouble for stealin’ the District Attorney’s lunch (assumin’ that’s what DA means?)
I pass on the “Chicken Fried Chicken” because I am sure the sawmill gravy will taste like sawdust. I also passed on the “Smothered Grilled Chicken” – I just could not bear the thought of Grandma’s smotherin’ those chickens.
Finally, putting Grandma’s killin’ methods out of my mind, I settle for the “Chicken ‘n’ Dumplins Platter, plus three country sides”. I chose Breaded Fried Okra, Pinto Beans and Turnip Greens just to experience true Tennessee country eatin’. The Turnip Greens were unusual – like spinach without the leaves. I guess the caterpillars must have got to them before Grandma did.
When the meal came it sure was fillin’. Grandma’s Dumplins could be used to glue together broken rockin’ chairs or seal the draughts in the porch windows. I didn’t tell her that because she didn’t look like the sort of Grandma you would want to argue with. No room for a puddin’, in fact no puddin’s on the menu, so I guess I’m not the only neighbour goin’ away full up.
On the way out we were “parted and departed” with a “thank you for eatin’ with us”. I took a moment to visit with Grandma only to find she wasn’t the owner – “I just work here”. She is 80 years young, beautifully made up and her hair is tied back with a ribbon. Immaculate as if she was going to church on Sunday except for the apron. She told me she works here most days but doesn’t do the waitressin’ – “the young ‘uns do that”. She drives to work — and on one day when her car didn’t start, she walked — but the manager said if it happened again she should ring and someone would pick her up. In a car or maybe a buggy I assume.
On the days she doesn’t work at the country restaurant, she volunteers at the local hospital.
She may not own the place but she is the perfect ambassador for Tennessee Country Cookin’. She embodies everything that is get up and go about America.