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

Cracker Barrel's chicken and dumplings. Mmm, doesn't the picture make you want to dig in?
Cracker Barrel's chicken and dumplings. Mmm, doesn't the picture make you want to dig in?
Photos by Gavin Cleaver

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.

Ground meat, filler and tomato sauce -- that's a meatloaf all right.
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."

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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