Cracker Barrel Nation

rocking pair

Friend Ryan Goodman shared a colorful essay by FOX News & Commentary host Todd Starnes, and I have to say I agree. The New York Times misunderstands Southern cooking.

The Times showcased a new crop of Southern chefs and farmers in last month’s article “Southern Farmers Vanquish the Clichés” by Julia Moskin.

The story originally ran with the charming headline “Vanquishing the Colonel—Farmers work with chefs to restore Southern cuisine’s dignity.” Now tell us how you really feel, NYT.

Smart, talented, green, these rebel chefs and farmers are reviving the culinary practices and ingredients of the Old South. Restoring Southern cooking to its rightful place, so to speak.

It’s an interesting read. The deliciously described history and recipes combined with the Times’ exemplary writing tempt this GRITS (Girl Raised in the South) to scoot on over to Travelocity. Secure me an airplane ticket to Charleston or Birmingham. Quick and cheap, please.

Quick because I need that food NOW. Cheap because I will pay dearly for my dinner. According to Moskin’s story, these young chefs “are paying (and charging) big-city prices for down-home ingredients” just to stay in business.

No doubt gourmet Southern cuisine like hoppin’ John prepared with fancy red peas and heirloom rice is heavenly. But is it accessible to most folks? And is the food most Southerners cook and eat really undignified?

wanna play?

“Today, purists believe, Southern cooking is too often represented by its worst elements: feedlot hams, cheap fried chicken and chains like Cracker Barrel,” commiserates the Times.

Its worst elements? Them’s fightin’ words where I come from.

Emile DeFelice of Caw Caw Creek Farm in St. Matthews, S.C., producer of rare breed “heirloom pastured pork,” says in the article:

“My mother didn’t cook like that, and my grandmother didn’t cook like that. And if you want to come down here and talk about shrimp and grits, well, we’re tired of that, too. Southern cooking is a lot more interesting than people think.”

Well, Emile, maybe your mom didn’t cook like that. But lots of Southern moms did and still do.


Don’t get me wrong. I’m not one to pass up the world-class cuisine of a chichi restaurant. Tra Vigne in Napa when Michael Chiarello was still the chef. The long time gone Spruce in Chicago when prodigy Keith Luce reigned supreme.

Jim Fiala’s vibrant anchor The Crossing in St. Louis. The low country soul of Georgia Brown’s in Washington, D.C.

Dennis Quaintance and Nancy King Quaintance’s memory makers Lucky 32 and Green Valley Grill in Greensboro. The cozy sophistication of The Best Cellar in Blowing Rock.

And then there’s Chapel Hill’s finest Crook’s Corner. Sad to admit I’ve never actually eaten there. Doesn’t matter. I know, as all good Tarheels do, Crook’s is famous for shrimp and grits. We don’t tire of it in North Carolina, Emile.

This food is special occasion fare. I don’t eat that way on a daily basis. It’s not affordable or practical. I love highfalutin dining, but I love Cracker Barrel, too.

front porch

Road trip across these great United States with the family in tow, then you tell me. What’s better than seeing the sign of the old man, the barrel and the chair?

With it comes the assurance of window shopping for toys, candy and sentimental knickknacks. Chicken, catfish and okra fried up right. Comfort food for many a weary traveler, a mere interstate exit away.

The rising stars of Southern cuisine deserve the spotlight. What they’re cooking and reviving is beautiful and exceptional.

But did the Times have to disparage the rest of the genre? Why imply down-home country cooking is undignified? Why insult Paula Deen in the first paragraph of the story?

Most Southern cooks I know cook with butter. And pork. And greens. Acquired from the grocery store. Or The Fresh Market. Or their own gardens.

checkers and a candy stick

True purists still own a FryDaddy and make the pilgrimage to Lexington for the Barbecue Festival every October.

And me, a GRITS living in the Midwest?

I followed an old Southern Living recipe to make hoppin’ John for New Year’s. With canned black-eyed peas (gasp!). Frozen collards (shame). Jasmine rice (what?). And Canadian bacon (traitor). Purchased at my local Midwestern grocery store.

In case you’re wondering, it was good. Just ask my husband.

That’s the point of Southern cooking and all good cooking. It’s accessible. Warm and welcoming. Hospitable and delicious. It makes artful use of what we have. There’s dignity in that and room for everyone at the table.

Don’t think you are better than you really are. Be honest in your evaluation of yourselves, measuring yourselves by the faith God has given us. Romans 12:3 NLT

Now if you’re feeling down and out, come on, baby, Drive South.

Disclaimer: I happily endorse, without compensation of any kind, the fabulous restaurants, store, and barbecue festival mentioned in this post. Yum-O.

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22 Responses to Cracker Barrel Nation

  1. Anita S

    You GO!!! The new-style Southern cooking doesn’t need to trash the old-style in order to taste good. There is room for everyone around the Southern table. In fact, I’ve been to Cracker Barrel with a party of 15 and believe it or not, they found room!

  2. Now I’m hungry, Aimee and it’s a long time until lunch. Cracker Barrel, or Greensboro’s Lucky 32 or Green Valley Grill — I love good southern food.

  3. Mmmmm…I’m hungry and this didn’t help!

    And I would just like to point out that your darling boy is sitting in an Illini rocker. Be still my heart.

  4. Darn you beat me to a response post, but you did it much better than I could have. My mouth is already watering. There’s also nothing better than walking into a small town cafe and ordering bacon (save the grease for the beans and greens later), eggs, and grits for breakfast, or a country fried steak with beans and okra any other time of day. Long live comfort food and simple cooking!

    • And you’re going to enjoy some righteous country cooking in Tennessee, Ryan. After I posted I remembered all the wonderful restaurants I forgot to mention, including a handful in your state. I’ve got Nashville on my mind at this moment: Monell’s, 417 Union, Puckett’s, City House… there’s enough for another post about Nashville alone…

      • I have actually had breakfast at Puckett’s when I was in Nashville for the conference in August! It was good food. And I may have to steal your adjective of “righteous” when talking about some of this good food! Thank Aimee for giving me some good restraunt ideas for my next trip to Middle Tenn.

        • You can use “righteous” to describe good food all day long because that’s what it is!
          I know you’re in east TN now. We drive through there on the way to NC, but I’m not as familiar with restaurants to suggest. Let me know what you discover…

  5. Christel

    I will take my pinto beans cooked with a ham hock anyday! Fried squash & okra …does it get any better than that? ? Fresh picked collard greens fried with fat back… can’t touch this! I’m from the south….I cook southern …..and very proud of it! Great post Aimee!

  6. We southern cooks can take anything and cook it into gold. I make New Years dinner with dry black eye peas that I slow cook all day in a crock pot. I use minute rice. YES, minute rice. And the only greens I like are southern Turnip Greens seasoned with bacon. I am not sure how you cook yours but I get mine out of a can and I add a little heat with a pepperoncini pepper. It really just adds flavor and mellows the greens. If you have not tried it yet, you must. Then I add cornbread to top it off. Dang girl you got me wanting some cornbread!

  7. My husband’s family hails from Oklahoma and Arkansas, so on our big family fests we get a lot of Southern/Okie food on the table. Okra, pot roasts, cream peas and potatoes, chocolate gravy, all the good stuff. You don’t need to scrap that to make fancy-shmancy versions of it. Actually, in my opinion, simple foods (or poor folks’ foods, as my mother-in-law often dubs them, because most of these come from ingredients from any farmer’s own back yard and barn) taste better when made with the original, simple ingredients.
    They sort of did a similar “botching” to traditional Hungarian cuisine over the last 10-15 years, when our old-fashioned recipes were deemed to be too greasy, unhealthy and unsophisticated. Hence came the reinvention of paprika chicken stew as a paprika-crusted, sous-vide cooked chicken fillet; or traditional, rich fish soup reworked as a clarified fish base, often with non-native, even ocean fish slices. (For the record, fish soup is traditionally made from freshwater bream and carp.) Kill the grease, kill the butter, kill the fat; make it all sanitary and sauce-less, so it presents nicer on a fancy plate.
    I beg to differ. Give me my big fatty potato-bacon casserole. :)

    • Amen, sister! I’m all for “healthier” versions of recipes, but not if it sanitizes the taste out of the food. There’s a reason the old-fashioned, “poor folks'” recipes remain so treasured. They’re delicious!

  8. Love me some Cracker Barrel also. They have the best chicken and dumplings ever. And the okra as you mentioned is as good as it gets. Catfish… Dang…. Now my wife, kids and I are going to Cracker Barrel for supper tomorrow… See what you did? God bless ya friend and don’t ever lose that Southern charm…

    It suits you well….

  9. zweberfarms

    I have a husband who wishes he lived in the South. Instead, he has to put up with his Italian wife who bravely attempts wonderful Southern cooking. Great response Aimee!

    • Thank you, Emily. I didn’t know you were Italian. I’m 3/4 Italian, too. I figure we Italians have a love affair thing going on with food (and most other things in life), so cooking is second nature to us. And Southern cooking is like Italian cooking’s kin. Mangia, y’all!