Gone Away ~ The journal of Clive Allen in America

(This article forms part of the Journal that I am writing to describe my impressions of America since arrival in September, 2004. To begin reading this Journal from the beginning, click here.)

Another thing the Americans know how to do is food. This is evidenced by the number of restaurants, eating joints, fast food outlets and steak houses scattered throughout their cities. And they need to be so numerous, for the Americans take eating out as an important part of life.

Of course, we know about those chains that have already made the jump across the Atlantic - Maccadees, KFC, Pizza Hut and Subway. What we don't realise is that this is merely the tip of the iceberg. Behind these forerunners there lurks an army of food chains of a dazzling variety and provenance. Virtually every country in the world is represented here, from Korea to Mexico, Italy to Thailand, Germany to Morocco. In a Chinese restaurant I visited recently, there was a corner set aside for a Mongolian Barbecue. I have yet to see a Tibetan restaurant (ghee and yak steaks, probably) but feel sure that somewhere, somehow it must exist.

But there are some that deserve special mention. Chief amongst these has to be Cracker Barrel. I'm told that Cracker Barrel is a Southern institution but find it hard to believe that such a brilliant invention has not yet found its way into the land of the Yankees (of course, I am also advised that those Yankees are mighty strange folks).

All Cracker Barrels have a porch at the front. And the porch is home to an array of rocking chairs. These are for sale, admittedly, but generally they are more often used for relaxing before or after the meal and for a contemplative cigarette as the crown to one's gastronomic satisfaction.

Inside one finds that half of the building is devoted to a gift shop. This is so that, after having registered as a customer with the restaurant, one can browse through the displays of quality merchandise and, perhaps, make a purchase while waiting for a table to become available. For Cracker Barrels are always full. The clever addition of the gift shop means that one does not resent having to wait, however.

Cracker Barrel builds its reputation on its good old country cooking. The food is just that, real American home cooking like your mom used to make. So good is this fare that it has become a tradition that Southern families have their Sunday breakfasts at Cracker Barrel. And what a breakfast it is! The American breakfast is an English one with extras added. The famous "hash brown" is now invading Britain and we imagine that we know at last what this delicacy is. Yet Cracker Barrel has a development on this theme that far outstrips its ancestor for tastiness - the fabulous hash brown casserole.

There are grits, of course, that mysterious item that so puzzles us in Britain. In a previous trip I found, to my disappointment, that this is merely what in Africa we used to call "sadza" - a ground corn porridge that remains pretty tasteless whatever you call it. Fortunately, one does not have to order it.

And then there are biscuits, usually served as biscuits and gravy. In such a simple term lies one of the great misunderstandings between the Brit and his New World cousin. In America the biscuit is actually what we would call a scone (our biscuits are called cookies over here). To us, a scone is only to be served with butter, strawberry jam (preserve, for any American readers) and cream, but the Americans have not yet discovered this exquisite combination. No, they tend to combine the biscuit with savoury rather than sweet additives, hence biscuits and gravy. Even that sounds disgusting to British ears but patience, dear friends. The gravy referred to here is not the dark brown, meaty extract that we are used to - this is something called milk gravy, a thick white paste that bears only a passing resemblance to the gravy we know. And the combination is, strangely enough, rather effective.

Of course, there are other things one can do with biscuits. Only this morning I had sausage and biscuits, which turned out to be sausage meat fried and placed between the two halves of a biscuit. I am becoming so Americanised!

But I digress and should return to the delights of Cracker Barrel. I have not indicated yet that breakfast is not the only meal served here. Lunch and dinner are equally as good and, since the occasion I am about to reflect upon happened during a dinner, equally worthy of mention.

A strange thing happens to me when I eat in a Cracker Barrel restaurant. The waitresses pat me on the back. Now, the waitresses in this restaurant are at least as friendly and pleasant as they are in any other American eating establishment (I could write pages about how good the service is here and how nice the staff - but I give just this passing mention for the moment) and I am becoming accustomed to the way in which any family group quickly expands by one member (the waitress) as soon as they sit down to eat. But I do admit to being surprised (pleasantly - there is nothing a reserved and inhibited Brit loves quite as much as a casual and natural demonstration of affection) the first time a Cracker Barrel waitress patted me on the back.

Oh, I know that it's the accent. I have been asked enough times by Americans to "talk, just talk - I luv your accent" to ever deceive myself on that point. But it's the total surprise that still gets to me. Our servers (as we must now call them in Britain) would never, never touch a customer and the most one could hope for from a British server would be grudging efficiency.

To return to the dinner, however, once again the waitress did not disappoint me for, about halfway through the meal, sure enough, she patted me on the back. I turned to Kathy and winked. She grinned and whispered, ‘It's the accent."

That was just the beginning, however. A few minutes later, the manager emerged from wherever he'd been hiding and approached our table. He enquired whether we were satisfied with the quality of the meal and we, having no reasonable cause for complaint (not that I, being British, would have dreamed of doing so even if it had been inedible), assured him that it was excellent. It was then, as he turned to go, that I felt him pat me on the back.

Now, I know what you're thinking but I must beg to differ. That manager asked none of the other tables about their meals - he had heard the fuss in the kitchens about ‘the guy with the British accent" and had come to hear for himself, I'm sure. That pat on the back was just his way of saying thanks for my saying a few words. Well, that's what I think, anyway.

So that is Cracker Barrel, although my description does not come close to displaying its true glory. Now I must speak of my latest discovery, a restaurant that may or may not be part of a chain but would make any British visitor fall upon his knees in wonder. I speak of the Golden Corral.

A buffet, they told me, you'll enjoy the steaks. Oh well, I thought, I'll try anything once. Little did I know what I was letting myself in for. You know, they don't forewarn you, these Americans. I suppose it must be because they're so used to these things but, really, they ought to give you at least some idea of what awaits, just around the corner.

The most obvious clue to the reality of the Golden Corral greets one just inside the front door. There are barriers set up so that one must follow a winding route to reach the tills. If I had just stopped a moment and thought, I'd have realized that this meant that these guys were used to dealing with big numbers, that the only reason for funneling us through this maze was to prevent the staff from being crushed by the stampede. But not I, trusting fool that I am.

Interesting, too, that one should pay before eating but then this is a buffet, after all. One of those pay-so-much-and-eat-till-you-drop places. A buffet, yeah right.

This so-called buffet stretches the length of the room. And it's a long room, long enough to get my legs tightening up if I walked its full length. But there is no time to take it all in - the others are hurrying on in search of a table. I follow dutifully.

We find a table and then head for the buffet. I know buffets and have developed a reasonable strategy for them. Invariably one starts by having a little of anything that looks good but this means that, before even the halfway point, one is out of space on the plate and having to pass by the later delicacies. So, these days, I am very careful and selective, hoping to reach the end of the line before space runs out.

The Golden Corral starts like any other buffet - salads. And there are many, indeed, the choice is staggering. All sorts of tempting concoctions and not a raisin to be seen anywhere (whoever introduced the raisin to British salads should be shot). I take a bit of one salad and move on.

Near the end of the salads I come across a seafood salad that looks too inviting. I grab just a spoonful, aware that this may mean foregoing some later delight. At this stage I think I was still fairly pleased with my restraint.

The cornucopia of temptation goes on, however, and I begin to weaken. I shall not bore you with all of my selections, with one exception - Bourbon Street Chicken. This leaps at me after about half a mile of stringent sampling. Try me, it seems to be saying, resplendent in its golden Cajun glory. I take just a little and continue.

A little further on, Kathy turns and asks me where I'm going to put the steak. There is no room left on my plate. "I guess it'll have to go on top," I mumble and decide that nothing more goes on until we reach the steak. I walk stolidly past the remaining offerings.

Steaks are treated differently here. There is a chef working away at a grill and one merely has to interrupt him at his work to ask for the cut one requires. He is turning a huge chunk of steak when I reach him and he saws off a piece for me. It is small enough not to overbalance the rest of my selections and I turn for home.

It is then that I realise I am only halfway down this long buffet. And it comes to me - this is no buffet, it's a mass production line. It's the sheer size of the thing. This would devour six buffets in England and not even notice. And that's not to mention the quality. And the absence of raisins, oh merciful God!

Once back at the table, I find that the food is perfect. Everything I have chosen is right, it seems. The steak is good but not of the melt-in-your-mouth quality one can obtain in dedicated steakhouses. The salads are excellent, the seafood in particular having a punchy taste that makes British attempts in that direction seem insipid (which, after all, they are).

But the Bourbon Street Chicken, oh the Bourbon Street Chicken! How can I describe this? It does not seem to be chicken at first sight. It is composed of small, rounded and crazily shaped pieces nothing like chicken meat. And all is covered with the delectable Cajun covering already mentioned. It is superb.

I realize that it is probably the parts of a chicken that we would not eat in Britain - the liver, the kidneys, interesting things like that. But it matters not - this is a wonderful dish, easily the best on my carefully-selected plate. I head back to refill my plate, purely so that I can have more of my wonderful new discovery.

And that is the Golden Corral, not only a mighty eating house designed to feed America but also a treasure trove of new and interesting dishes. No wonder they need to corral the customers at the entrance!

These are just two eating establishments that I have had to mention. There are many more that I have yet to sample and just as many that I have tried on previous visits, all well worth at least a line or two. Yet this is only one area of the American experience and I must hurry on. I can't help but love this country.

(to go directly to the next entry in the Journal, click here)


I agree! Down with raisin-filling of British dishes!
Date Added: 28/11/2004

I neglected to mention on my last comment that I also make a wonderful cream sauce that is the closest to Devonshire cream that I've been able to come up with (not actaully being able to find the proper sweet cheese to use). I have found yet another reason for you to venture east into 'my' part of Missouri: Lambert's. It is another eating establishment which I believe you would find most interesting. Here, they have an odd tradition of throwing food you. One merely need raise a hand upon hearing "rolls up", and one will find a large, hot, melt-in-your-mouth roll hurtling toward them.
Date Added: 09/01/2005

Gone Away
Wow, sounds like that tradition could be fun! I have been to Missouri, mainly the Kansas City area but also we travelled through once to visit relatives in St Louis. I didn't see a Lambert's but will keep an eye out for it in future. And the Devonshire cream substitute sounds wonderful!
Date Added: 09/01/2005

I haven't been to Cracker Barrel in forever. I will have to go now. Same goes for Golden Corral. At Golden Corral, I get the steak to justify me paying for it. Before they started offering steaks, it was cheaper. I get my money's worth. Then again, I am certain they lose money on me. I am going to use this metabolism while I have it. I love the mashed potatoes and gravy/macaroni and cheese at Golden Corral. Mmmm... I hate you for being so descriptive right now.
Date Added: 22/02/2005

Gone Away
LOL Rusty. Enjoy your meal. :D
Date Added: 22/02/2005

Mmmmmmm....seafood salads....LUV EM! The salad section is the only place i visit in the restaurant when i go. I went to the US for 14 days (and put a lb on 4 every day i stayed!!!) and visited the golden corral at least 8 times!!!! Its great!!! Ooooohhh ooooohhh....and there's this spinach, bacon and egg salad there too. It was 2 DIE 4!!!Yummm.... I was a vegetarian when left for the US...HAHAHA...oops. I'm also mildly lactose intolerant....so salad dressings, dairy products and fish is meant to be a no no....whoops ^¬^ mmmmm...salads.... k, now i've got a craving and a sudden urge to want to go to the golden corral. Shame its 3,000 miles away, LOL! i wish i had rustys metabolism...
Date Added: 17/12/2005

Gone Away
Now there's a lady who enjoys her food! And you remind me of my previous visits to the States, Rose - I don't think anyone can be here even a few days without putting on weight. It's all just so tempting... ;)
Date Added: 17/12/2005

I happened upon your blog today while searching for a recipe for the Golden Corral Bourbon Chicken. The account of your experience sent me into fits of giggles. It is a wonderful, witty and charming look into my culture from an outsider's point of view. Thank you, I did enjoy this.
Date Added: 10/01/2008

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