The Cracker Barrel-ing Experience

Kansas has been an experience of firsts: first NFL game, first time watching Space Balls, first gun show, first country fried steak (CFS), and first time at a restaurant that has the word Cracker in it.

Fascinated by the name, and the common expressions of comfort that glide over people’s faces when I reference the Cracker Barrel restaurant in conversations, I simply could not miss the opportunity for this “first” experience.

It did not disappoint.

I devoured my first CFS and all the sides: mashed potatoes, carrots, hash brown casserole, biscuits, cornbread. All concern about ordering that much food – especially when the waitress kept forcing me to make so many decisions – dissipated after dinner as I stared at my clean plate. It was worth every bite.

The southern-comfort-style restaurant chain sealed my quest of CFS exploration during my time in Kansas – wondering if there was another CFS that could equal that self-revelatory experience of the first.

The search continued at Weller’s – one of Topeka’s many sports bars. Here I began to notice the back of my elbows rubbed raw from spending so much time laughing and resting on the beer-filmed tables. Dinner appeared with broccoli covered in Velveeta, the highlight of the meal, but the steak was thicker, fattier, and slightly too unpredictable.

We returned to Cracker Barrel for breakfast – replacing the hash brown casserole with creamy grits. The CFS was good, but still did not compare to that first experience. The intruding presence of the egg added a layer of guilt since I wasn’t eating all of it, so that may have also compromised meal’s integrity.

But then, unexpectedly, something blew our hypothesis apart. We thought that humanity often searches to return and recreate the feelings associated with “first time” events: first beer, first drag, first kiss, first chicken fried steak.

At Blind Tiger, Topeka’s microbrewery, I found the CFS that was meant to complete that part of my soul that was gaping open and yearning for the perfect CFS. The homemade breading melted in my mouth, covering an honest and thick steak.

That was the CFS that was right for me. The Cracker Barrel experience, though, will always remain so dear in my heart – it was the first impression, the first taste, the first foray, the first experience. Without that first chicken fried steak, I could never have known what was possible, I could never have found the one that was meant to be.

(See Chicken Fried, Zac Brown Band)

There’s No App for That


The piano player keyed a few bars of ‘Piano Man’ as I found a corner spot at the bar. The Shiloh Inn – always with a restaurant and always with a flashback to 1956 – offered a haven from the rain and traffic near the Portland International Airport.

As a transitory hub, I sat at the bar with other single travelers. Our eyes cast downward as we checked email, and Facebook, and email again. I momentarily laid my phone face down on the bar to glance at the Navy football team on TV, but soon picked up the phone again. Just to see if I had received another email in the past 30 seconds.

Then I noticed the bar tender fumble somebody’s bill and I made some funny comment about Tom Cruise and Cocktail to break the tension. The woman next to me replied to the comment, and we started talking.

I soon found myself sharing admissions to her good humor, such as expressing my once indecision about having children (side note: a friend – who held a similar viewpoint – and I once partook in an “ambivalent baby” party in her front lawn, which was pretty awesome). The woman at the bar confided to me that she had felt the same way, but once she had a child it was like “putting on an old sweater. I knew that I was meant to do it.” As she said that, it suddenly became clear that when our destinies (or the things that are meant to be) are realized, you know because they wrap you up in warmth and love and comfort and relief and safety, just like the fit of an old sweater.

Then on the other side of my corner seat, a man pulled out a bar stool and ordered a Crown. He quickly fell into conversation with us and I soon felt the tension building between the man and woman next to me, both about a decade older than myself, and I happily played a lubricating role in the flirtation.

“What do you do?” she eventually asked him.

“I’m in nuclear engineering,” he replied. “What do you do?”

“Oh, I’m in wind energy.”

“HA!!” I emitted with a clear lack of control. “What do you guys call each other behind your backs?”

“We call them propeller-heads,” he said with good nature.

“Well, he is part of ‘the other green energy'” she shot back with a smile.

Another howl of laughter erupted from me, enough to garner the attention of the rest of the bar.

Soon we conscripted the other patrons into conversation. The white-haired man drinking vodka tonics, with one hand gesturing and the other hand dancing, taught me some Italian to use in Firenze: “Be-a-cherry” (or nice to meet you).

My initial bar friend and I agreed to never sleep with any firefighters (although wild land ones are ok) since learning that one of the patron’s recently estranged wife had posted on her fb page (that night in fact) that she was now dating a firefighter. We deleted it off our mental Bucket Lists, and it was definitely worth the sacrifice.

The young Navy man down the bar also had us promise not to sleep with any battleship men (although I’m not really sure what that even means) but we gamefully agreed.

In that bar, we organically formed a transitory community while listening to the piano man play into a previous generation. Instead of sitting on the stools with eyes tuned to a moving screen to escape our silences, close ourselves to humanity, hoard our energy we think we need to conserve, and combat our fear of the present, we put our phones down and opened. And bonded. And laughed. And shared energy that actually made ourselves feel worthy with generosity.

And we fell a little bit back into 1956.

The What of the “What?”

We have visited relatives in their homes, and we have visited relatives in their graves; we have researched family history in western landscapes, and we have researched American history in dusty museums; we have sat in the car cruising just under the legal limit, and we have sat in the car stopped near houses of past loves. In the last two decades we have reached purposeful destinations, and navigated unexplained routes, traveling thousands of miles. Together.


My grandmother, mother, and I – ages 90-68-29 – make an effort once a year to climb into a car and go. With 187 years of combined life experience, these annual road trips facilitate time to share past stories, express unsaid thoughts, and, of course, cultivate our shared slant of humor.

With three generations in the vehicle, sometimes talking over The Mills Brothers lyrics or  Garrison Keillor stories, there is a predictably large margin of error. Between our age differences, generation gaps, failed hearing, and selective memory, the question “What?” often arises.


This year’s road trip – from Reno to Park City to an undetermined location – began with such a moment.

Before we even pulled out of the driveway, my grandmother realized that she forgot her cane. We walked back in the house to retrieve it.

“Is that the lead-lined cane?” I asked Grammy, hoping she would understand the suggested reference.

“What? No, this is the retractable one,” she replied.

“Remember the lead cane, Mom?” my mother asked Grammy, picking up the storyline. “The one we were going to smack men with?” My mother was referring to a time a few years before when I was suffering from a broken heart. We all joked that Grammy could help the healing process by smacking my latest ex-boyfriend with her new lead cane.

“Is that the lead one you have there?” my mother asked again.

Grammy looked down at the baton-looking cane in her hand.

“No, but this one’ll do,” she said.

Such “What?” moments have become more common as our time passes together, but they have also become more valuable. “What?” has ceased to be an annoying question, asked under obligation in expectations of an irrelevant answer. Rather, “What?” offers a chance to hear an old story in a new way, establish a memory, or create a new layer to our ever-evolving relationship.

“What?” has actually become a precious question. Right up there with, “Which way should we go next?”