Country Fried Steak and Moral Angst
By: Shannon Ralph
Last night, Ruanita and I took the kids to Cracker Barrel for dinner. You know Cracker Barrel, right? That highway off-ramp institution of down-home culinary delights? I have a love/hate relationship with Cracker Barrel. I want to hate it, but I can’t help loving it. Allow me to explain.
In 1991, Cracker Barrel instituted a policy requiring employees to display “normal heterosexual values which have been the foundation of families in our society.” In other words, they absolutely did not want gay employees in the company. Despite eleven years of protest demonstrations by gay rights groups, the company refused to change their policy. Finally in 2002, the company’s shareholders voted 58 percent to 42 percent in favor of rescinding the policy. The board of directors added sexual orientation to the company’s nondiscrimination policy. Nonetheless, Cracker Barrel scored the lowest score (15 out of 100) of all rated food and beverage companies in the Human Rights Campaign’s 2008 Corporate Equality Index, a measure of Gay and Lesbian workplace equality. So, basically, the company still does not treat its GLBT employees fairly, despite the policy change. Therefore, being a proud lesbian with a house full of young children to mold and nurture and teach right from wrong, I hate Cracker Barrel. I simply should avoid it and refuse to give them my business and my hard-earned dollars. Right?
That being said, I still find myself conflicted. Morally and intellectually, I despise Cracker Barrel. However, physically and emotionally, I am drawn to it. It speaks to me. I am a Kentucky girl, born and bred. I live in Minnesota, a place I truly love. The hearty Norwegians who founded this state have many wonderful qualities. However, from a culinary perspective, they are the most bland, spiceless, white-bread people you will ever find. That leaves me in a bind. Where else in Minnesota can a country girl get gravy and biscuits? Chicken and dumplings? Delicious perfectly baked cornbread? Country-fried steak? Fried okra? I don’t know of another restaurant in this entire state that has cornmeal-breaded fried okra on their menu. In addition to their delicious down-home menu options, they also serve breakfast 24/7. This means that my perfectly picky children can have pancakes for dinner. And not just any pancakes, but light, fluffy, delicious pancakes doused with real maple syrup.
I think I’ve sufficiently established that the food at Cracker Barrel sings to me. However, there are other aspects of Cracker Barrel that make it the perfect restaurant for my burgeoning brood, as well. It’s loud and rowdy —the perfect atmosphere for my loud and rowdy kids to eat without disturbing the public at large. Though often crowded, it has a country store with a toy section that entertains my children while we wait for a table. And speaking of that country store, they sell all of the circa 1970s sugary confections of my childhood. Chick-O-Sticks? Check! Moon Pies? Check! Goo-goo Clusters? Check! Technicolored rock candy? Check!
Can you see why I am conflicted now? What’s a poor displaced Southern girl to do? Do I follow my head and boycott Cracker Barrel? Live a life void of dumplings and fried okra and Goo-Goo Clusters? Or do I follow my stomach and my emotions, happily eating all of the delicious foods I grew up on? I suppose I will just continue my current course of action, which goes a little something like this: Load the kids into the minivan. Sneak off quietly at dusk. Drive thirty minutes to the southernmost suburb of Lakeville (Minneapolis, in its infinite, metropolitan wisdom, does not have a Cracker Barrel restaurant). Pray that I do not run into anyone I know while lounging in a rocking chair on Cracker Barrel’s porch (chances are pretty slim since most of my friends would not be caught dead in Lakeville). Eat to my heart’s content. Skulk back to the city feeling bloated, gassy, and guilty as hell.