Cracker Barrel: Pancakes & Rockers

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This article by Jamie Saxon was prepared for the May 7, 2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Southern Cookin’ Comes North

My first taste of real Southern cooking was in 1989,

when I — a Connecticut native and granddaughter of a member of

the DAR — went to Tennessee to meet my future in-laws. They live

on a farm in a small town called Dickson, 40 miles west of Nashville,

where the Wal-Mart sells ammo. I was taken directly from the airport

to the All You Can Eat Frogs Legs Night at my father-in-law’s Moose

Lodge. I valiantly tried one bite but imagined that little leg kicking

in a murky Tennessee swamp somewhere and could not stomach a second.

The next night I fared much better at Catfish Kitchen, where the only

thing on the menu was catfish served 20 different ways, mostly fried,

and hush puppies.

The third night was a pig roast: The men built a pit at 8 a.m., coffee

in one hand and beer keg within reach of the other, from which they

imbibed all day as they turned that pig, and the women made a pageant

of cornbread, potato salad, cole slaw, and lots of multicolored Jello

fruit salad. That pork barbeque was the best damn thing I ever ate,

went down smoother than butter on a baby’s butt, as they say.

When I left a few days later (and several pounds heavier), my future

mother-in-law, round and sweet as a bowlful of jelly, her cheeks and

hands still dusty with flour from that morning’s breakfast of biscuits

and gravy, squeezed me tight and whispered in my ear, "You shore

are nice fer a Yankee," and then promptly told me I’d have to

shoot a tin can off an upended garbage can with a shotgun before they’d

take me to the airport. Which I did, while the whole family watched.

Fourteen years later, I never cook Southern food for my husband David.

About once a year, he pines, "Why can’t you make me real banana

puddin’?" This is a classic Southern layered dessert made from

vanilla custard, fresh sliced bananas, and Nilla Wafers, the equivalent

of baby food for Southern grownups. David’s grandmother would haul

him two hours to the International Banana Festival in Obion County,

Tennessee, which featured a one-ton vat of banana pudding.

When I told David I was doing a story on the invasion of Southern

cooking up north and that I’d be going to Delta’s, a Southern restaurant

in New Brunswick with banana pudding on the menu, he said quite seriously,

"Now don’t come back without some." When I told him I’d be

going to the new Cracker Barrel, an old time country store and restaurant

chain that was birthed in Lebanon, Tennessee, just a stone’s throw

from his hometown, he said, "Now don’t come back without a Goo-Goo."

That’s a Southern candy shaped like, well, not unlike a cowpie, consisting

of chocolate, marshmallows, and peanuts.

At Delta’s, whose cheery yellow awning flaps brightly

beside the Frog & the Peach on Dennis Street, I found Willie J. Stafford,

known to the staff simply as Chef, tucked away in a teeny, tiny office

lodged deep within the kitchen. Number nine in a family of ten, the

58-year-old Stafford, whose parents and grandparents hail from Macon,

Georgia, was born and raised in Trenton by his seven sisters and grandmother,

who ran a boarding house.

Grandma ruled the kitchen, lording over her old wood stove, cooking

everything from pork chops to upside down cake in the same cast iron

pan, never washing it (ruins the patina) but just wiping it out in

between breakfast and supper. They routinely ate dinner for breakfast:

smothered pork chops, grits, and gravy. Given his choice of chores

— cleaning or cooking — he chose cooking: "If you cook,

you don’t have to clean up," says Stafford with a twinkle in his

eye. But food wasn’t his passion.

Mortuary science was. "I used to bury my money. In high school,

I started reading the obits, then went to the services after school."

His father was a laborer and his mother, who died when he was five,

was a laundress. In high school, Stafford earned extra cash working

in an Italian restaurant on Olden Avenue owned by a friend’s father

who commented, "you’d make a good chef," when he saw how deftly

Stafford prepped the chicken and turkeys and stuffed the peppers and

cabbages for the Sunday dinner crowd.

When Stafford discovered the six-feet-under scene is strictly a family

business, he decided to become a state trooper. Turned down for poor

eyesight, he fell into corrections, running the Yardville Correctional

Center. When the "adult babysitting" got to him, he ran into

a friend who got him involved in catering and convinced him to apply

to the Culinary Institute of America, where he graduated at age 32.

After years as a corporate executive chef in New York for blue chip

companies like Marriott, Philip Morris, and McGraw Hill, he now oversees

a masterful kitchen that churns out close to 400 mouthwatering dinners

a weekend night, putting his own contemporary twist on Southern favorites

and "Southernizing" others.

Sammy cakes — like a crab cake but made from canned salmon —

earn gourmet status when made with the cut-off ends of the Pecan Crusted

Salmon, another featured menu item. Chicken Parmesan, one of the most

popular items on the menu, goes south as Stafford trades tomato sauce

for a BBQ sauce, "more sweet than tangy," and adds pepper

jack, which melts like mozzarella. He offers up catfish fingers and

tartar sauce; duck confit spring rolls made with collard greens and

cabbage and served with a dipping sauce of hoisin, ginger, and pureed

spinach; and thin, crisp sweet potato fries dusted with confectioner’s

sugar. Weekend specials, invented by his multicultural staff, take

on a Caribbean, Creole-Cajun, or Hispanic flavor.

"They don’t teach Southern cooking at CIA, you know," says

Stafford. "CIA teaches you the academics of cooking: the math,

planning, pricing structure, and so on." When he interviewed for

the job at Delta’s, he says, "I cooked what I cook when I’m at

home. I served collard greens, fried catfish, and ham steak in a black

cast iron skillet, with black-eyed peas, candied yams, and macaroni

and cheese on the side."

He pulls out his notes from his Culinary Institute of America days,

yellowed about the edges, pages filled with exquisite, flourish-filled

handwriting and finely detailed sketches that look plucked from the

pages of a Victorian lady’s diary. "I kept these all these years

and still use them as teaching tools." Asked about his beautiful

penmanship, Stafford beams, "Like I said, I grew up with seven

sisters."

His cost sheets, also handwritten even though a perfectly good computer

sits on his desk, look like the Declaration of Independence, and he

recalls the tax refund check he and his wife received that had to

be co-endorsed. "The bank called and said, `This isn’t a man’s

signature.’ They made me come down and prove it."

At Delta’s, Southern cooking borders on haute cuisine, and the menu

looks worthy of a Michelin star but tastes as down-home comforting

as the food from grandma’s backyard on a hot summer afternoon with

bees buzzing and toddlers rolling in the dirt. Smothered chicken,

baby back ribs slathered with bourbon sauce, and fruit cobblers, all

hot and oozing with juice. Even the pound cake is made by a little

old Southern lady. On the rare occasion he’s having trouble with a

dish, Stafford just asks an older Southern person. "They `know’

Southern cooking," he says. Once when his cobbler "just didn’t

taste like when I was a kid," he had his sister-in-law taste it.

Needs brown sugar, she quipped.

Stafford’s team plows through 25 cases of collard greens

from Friday to Sunday and 30 pounds of Lawry’s seasoned salt a week.

Two ingredients no Southern cook can do without are black pepper and

Lawry’s. "They don’t use black pepper at the CIA, because it shows;

they use white," explains Stafford. His macaroni and cheese, hands-down

the most popular item on the menu, is made the same way his grandmother

made it: noodles cooked first, then seasoned with black pepper and

Lawry’s. "If you can’t eat it [at that point] like a meal, I tell

my cooks, it’s not good enough," roars Stafford. Then the cream

sauce, and only just before serving, the cheese — only extra sharp

cheddar. It’s served in a six-ounce ramekin, which could feed a family

of four in a developing country. "Bangin’," cheers the comment

cards. That means fantastic.

Sitting at the long, polished bar, Delta’s co-owner Joshua Suggs,

32, born in Kansas City but raised in Highland Park, just across the

river from New Brunswick, can still claim Southern roots. As a child,

he spent summers in Kansas with relatives where he was fed okra, corn,

and plenty of smothered chicken. A Rutgers graduate, he was working

as a DJ at Napolitano’s, Delta’s former occupant, when he learned

the owner wanted to sell. The concept of opening a Southern restaurant,

says Suggs, was his wife’s idea.

Suggs met Coretta King on a cruise and proposed to her on another

cruise two years later. King, 31, a California native and recent graduate

of Long Beach State, came up with the concept of what Suggs calls,

"soul food, comfort food. I think our place just oozes soul."

Armed with a small business loan and money from their parents ("My

mom put her house up for collateral," Suggs freely admits), they

revamped the 6,000-square-foot space with a soothing, elegant color

scheme, adding sleek lighting fixtures and creating a lower level

dining area, a balcony dining area, and a private room for parties.

The gorgeous bar backed by an exposed brick wall was already there

but the 10-ounce martinis created by bartender Steve L. James —

Tuesday is "Tini Night" — are new.

Delta’s boasts plenty of regulars, many homesick Southerners who come

from as far as New York, Bergen and Passaic counties, Atlantic City,

and Philadelphia, often with visiting family in tow to enjoy live

R&B Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays; live jazz on Saturdays; and

a gospel brunch the third Sunday of every month.

Essence magazine has held mother-daughter luncheons here and Suggs

has hosted parties for influential New Jersey Democrats including

Senator John Corzine, Secretary of State Regena Thomas (who loves

the whiting, catfish, and pork chops, says Stafford), and Acting Attorney

General Peter Harvey, who has supported the restaurant from the beginning.

Harvey comes in regularly, once or twice a week, for the Southern

cuisine; his favorite menu item is Delta’s Pecan Crusted Salmon.

Thanks to a lead from a former Corzine staffer who moved to Maryland

to become county executive of Prince Georges County, which boasts

the highest African-American per capita income in the country, Suggs

and King have purchased 3-1/2 acres for a second restaurant. Suggs

says the new venue will be 8 to 10,000 square feet, located about

a mile from where the Washington Redskins play. "On game day,

70,000 people come through there."

When I arrive home with the banana pudding, garnished with an edible

orchid and a fresh, fanned-out strawberry, my husband takes one bite

and says "Oh, myyyy. That’s it. We’re there. Perfect."

Delta’s, 19 Dennis Street, New Brunswick, 732-249-1551.

Open Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, 5 p.m. to midnight; Friday

and Saturday, 5 p.m. to 2 a.m.; Sunday 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Closed Monday.

Sunday Brunch 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., with a gospel brunch every third

Sunday. Live jazz Saturdays beginning at 9:30 p.m., no cover.

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Cracker Barrel: Pancakes & Rockers

Perched like a curious anachronism at the entrance to

Hamilton Marketplace on Route 130 north, the new Cracker Barrel is

dwarfed by its "big box" neighbors Lowe’s, BJ’s Wholesale

Club, Wal-Mart, and Kohl’s. However, if you block those out, from

the highway you’d swear you were in South Carolina zooming down a

hot, dusty road, and your eye just caught a little general store with

a porch out front and old-timers seated on wooden rockers playing

a game of checkers.

Nostalgia sets in and you feel a sudden craving for a big country

breakfast, like you had when you drove down I-95 to Florida years

back and the waitress who served you actually liked being a waitress

and when she said, "Hi, sweetie" and "Thank you, ma’am,"

she drew out her vowels like a kid pulling bubble gum from their mouth.

Then your wheels start going and you start thinking about the good

old days when people who worked in stores were polite and you used

your allowance to get all those great candies like Gold Rocks Nuggets

Bubble Gum, Atomic Fireballs, Necco wafers, and Sky Bars — four

squares of chocolate filled with caramel, vanilla cream, peanut butter,

and fudge. Then you start dreaming that your kids would ditch the

Game-Boy and PlayStation and enjoy the toys you loved as a kid. Remember

Raggedy Ann and Andy dolls, Sock Monkeys, kazoos, Lincoln Logs, Tinkertoys,

Curious George, and real porcelain tea sets? And most of all, remember

when all these things, including the pancakes, didn’t cost very much?

At Cracker Barrel in Hamilton there really are old-timers sitting

out front on rockers playing checkers (and the rockers, made for the

chain since its inception by the Hinkle family in Springfield, Tennessee,

are for sale at unbelievably reasonable prices). Inside, authentic

country artifacts, from kitchen utensils to feed signs to horse saddles,

and an old-fashioned check-out counter with open shelves piled high

with glass jars of penny candy create the ambiance of an old country

store.

In the dining room, a stack of three buttermilk pancakes served with

real butter and pure maple syrup (when’s the last time you saw those

on a restaurant table?) and bacon or sausage will only set you back

$6.69, or $3.88 for the kid’s size. Or you can "loosen your belt,"

says the menu, for the Country Boy Breakfast for $7.99 — ham,

pork chops, or steak; three eggs; fried apples; hash brown casserole,

buttermilk biscuits and sawmill gravy, and grits on request.

If you’re not dead after that, you can buy a bona fide 12-inch cast

iron skillet for $14.99 and a buckeye (a giant blob of peanut butter

filling dipped in chocolate to resemble, yes, a buckeye) for 35 cents.

In the store, there’s plenty of cool country stuff like Fiestaware,

wooden toys, a painted wooden butterfly house that looks like a miniature

birdhouse, candles scented like hazelnut cappuccino, and a wicked

adjustable metal rake. And there is painted glassware, if that’s what

blows your skirt up. While the full spectrum of country "taste"

is covered, my impression is that the buyers for Cracker Barrel are

focused on quality goods at very reasonable prices. Many lines are

made exclusively for the store.

It’s a good thing there’s all this stuff because Mike George, retail

manager, says that since they opened at the end of March, they’ve

seen up to two-hour waits for breakfast and lunch on weekends. "We

sold 20 rockers yesterday, and we’ll sell the whole porchful of rockers

on Mother’s Day weekend," he adds.

But why, I wanted to know, would this Southern concept work north

of the Mason-Dixon line? Was it just because, as my husband David

has quipped a number of times, there are rednecks all over, they just

have different accents? It couldn’t be, because I looked up the demographics

on Hamilton Marketplace and the average income within 10 miles is

$75,138.

I called Julie Davis, director of communications of Cracker Barrel,

to see what she had to say about the wildfire success of the company,

established by Shell Oil "jobber" Dan Evins off Interstate

40 near Lebanon, Tennessee, in 1969. Today Cracker Barrel numbers

over 500 locations in 41 states, has been named for 13 years straight

as the best family dining restaurant in Restaurants & Institutions

magazine, and posted net sales of $1.8 billion in fiscal year 2002.

Last year the chain used six percent of the world’s supply of maple

syrup to serve breakfast to over 40,000 people a day.

The company’s move out of its core Southern market started in the

early 1990s. Says Davis: "Our old country store is the same as

the general store in the northeast or the outpost in the midwest —

a gathering place for people where everybody would get to know each

other. Cracker Barrel is known for its genuine hospitality and friendliness.

That will translate anywhere: that’s not specifically a Southern thing."

George, of the Hamilton store, worked at the Yorkville, Pennsylvania,

Cracker Barrel, the first to open up north in 1994. George, a country

boy who grew up on a 180-acre farm in northeast Pennsylvania, confirms

that people come to Cracker Barrel in much the same way people frequented

their local general store in days bygone. He says for the four years

he was in the Mount Holly store (he’s worked in four Cracker Barrel

locations), a Mr. and Mrs. Mitchell came in every day, sometimes twice

a day. "She’d pass out candy to everyone in the store and when

her husband made pumpkin bread, she brought that in, too." The

Mitchells would travel around the country and send George postcards

comparing other Cracker Barrels to the Mt. Holly location.

On a weekday afternoon I sat down in the middle dining room, contemplating

both the huge menu and the wide stone fireplace with a rifle and buck’s

head mounted above the mantel. I suddenly thought about those frogs’

legs at my father-in-law’s Moose Lodge, but I kept an open mind. At

the table behind me, a mother tucked her toddler into a real wooden

booster seat with a real leather strap. No plastic here. At the table

beside me, a waitress stopped, as if she had all the time in the world,

to admire the baby in the photos that a proud grandma was showing

to her friend.

I ordered chicken and dumplin’s, green beans, and turnip greens simmered

in country ham hocks. My meal came in under five minutes with a melt-in-your

mouth corn muffin and buttermilk biscuit, hot and crunchy on the outside,

sweet and soft on the inside. It certainly wasn’t gourmet, and there

wasn’t a garnish in sight, but I was completely unable to save even

one bite to take home to my husband. That food was just — gone.

I’ll be honest. I didn’t really want to like Cracker Barrel. The idea

of it made me feel a little like I felt on my first trip to Tennessee

— like a fish out of water. What did it for me, though, what made

me cross over to the Cracker Barrel side — more than the polite

and friendly and neatly dressed staff (no one in a store has been

that nice to me since the last time I went to Nordstrom’s and all

the men wear a shirt and tie ), more than my bill, which only came

to $7.31 (I love a bargain as much as the next girl) — was that

I was served real butter at room temperature. When a

restaurant has the smarts to serve real butter at room temperature

(nobody can spread those icy pats), I know they’re going the extra

mile.

I’m a cheap date but I’m also a purist. I will be back for breakfast

so I can have more real room temperature butter and real maple syrup

on my pancakes. And then I’m buyin’ me a Sky-Bar.

Cracker Barrel, 825 Market Place Boulevard, Hamilton,

609-581-5462. Open daily for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, 6 a.m.

to 10 p.m., on weekends to 11 p.m., and breakfast is served all day

long. No liquor is allowed.


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