It’s not a fancy place. It’s not even a local place, even though I try to stick to local restaurants here. In fact, you’re likely to find this restaurant in most cities, usually next to a family friendly hotel, right off a highway.
But sometimes, even the most commonplace chains can hold big memories’
The chain? Cracker Barrel. But it’s not about the menu or some amazing dish, although the food is good. It’s about family. Family lost, and family found.
It started on a one ordinary Christmas Eve. While everyone else was running around buying last-minute gifts or frantically wrapping or assembling, my mom decided we would head to Cracker Barrel for an early dinner.
So off we went. My mom and dad. Me. My kids (two, that first time). My little brother. We waited for our table outside in the rocking chairs, talking and laughing. My mom and I never had a good relationship, but somehow, on that cool, almost chilly, South Florida Christmas eve, everything felt okay. Close even. When we were called to our table (near the lit fireplace!) we continued to laugh and talk. It was crowded and service was slow, but no one cared. We were, for the moment, a happy family. It felt like magic, no matter how unlikely the setting for real magic. Without realizing it, we had started a tradition.
The next year, the kids and I again joined my parents and brother for another Cracker Barrel Christmas Eve, And two years later, a new family member in tow (my youngest daughter), we did it again. Every year, as soon as we walked into Cracker Barrel, rich with the scent of candles and biscuits, the magic returned.
Sadly, the relationship between my mom and I broke down completely after that last visit. And before we could repair it, and spend another Christmas Eve at Cracker Barrel, she passed away.
But in a weird twist, the universe stepped in. Because of family battles between my mom and other family members, I never got to know my cousins very well. But one Thanksgiving, I was invited to join a group of them for a cousins reunion dinner. We feasted and caught up and laughed. And then, before everyone headed off to bed, we made plans to meet again in the morning for brunch, before everyone headed home. The place? Cracker Barrel.
A different city, a different location, but it didn’t matter. Just as on those Christmas Eves, the magic was there. I had family. We laughed, we ate, we shopped and we connected. And we planned for future get-togethers, with future breakfasts and brunches at the same spot.
Now I live far from my cousins, and those gatherings are just memories too. But when I feel too lonely and disconnected, I grab my daughter and we head to the Cracker Barrel here in Austin. The beach is far, far away. My cousins are no where within driving distance, and my mom has been gone for over three years now.
But for a moment, when I walk around the shop, or watch the flames in the fireplace, or engage my daughter in a game of checkers while we sit in rocking chairs, everyone is right there. Just out of sight, maybe. But all there.
I know someday I will go home, and once again be near that Cracker Barrel where it all started. But until I do, I love knowing there’s a place where my memories are alive and well at highway exits across the country.
Do you have a restaurant or food that evokes memories of times or people long gone? I would love to hear about your special memory.