Cracker Barrel is quiet this time of morning. Our waitress is standard issue. Slightly older, a buck five sopping wet, cheerful face, silver hair that leans a little toward the purple side.
She looks like my granny did when I was a kid, and her smile makes me nostalgic for those simpler times. It’s a smile that says she’s exhausted, running on caffeine, but proud to be here.
I half expect the old woman to kiss me on the forehead when she greeted me, the way my Granny might have.
She opens with, “What’cha wanna drink, shug?”
Before I order, she removes her notepad and she actually touches the tip of her pencil to her tongue.
God love her. I’ll bet she still drives a Buick, too.
“Coffee, please,” my wife and I say.
“Comin’ right up, shug.”
My wife and I have been on the road for a few days. We stopped at Cracker Barrel to use the bathrooms, to eat, and to buy mountains of festive-smelling holiday decor from Cracker Barrel’s Old Country Store.
While my wife was wandering around the general store earlier, maxing out our Amex, I bought some horehounds and ate half of the bag.
I always purchase horehounds at Cracker Barrel because they are a thing of the past, and this store is the only place in the USA where you can buy them anymore.
I’ll pause here for the young people. “What’s a horehound?” I can hear the collective youth of our nation asking since, after all, many don’t know what horehounds are. In fact, whenever some people hear such a word they start thinking it’s vulgar.
Let the record show that horehounds are candy. They are about as American as the Lone Ranger, and older than the Pharaohs.
Mankind has been using horehounds since the first century BC, shortly after the construction of the first Cracker Barrel. Alexander the Great likely ate horehounds. So did Abe Lincoln, Mark Twain, and Norman Rockwell.
In my childhood, however, horehounds were mostly a man’s candy. As far as masculinity was concerned, horehounds ranked right up there with navy plug and ratchet sets from Sears.
Which is why I have memories of my elderly granddaddy, sitting in his rocker, wearing his faded blue chambray work shirt, chewing on horehounds.
I can still see his gnarled hands, whittling a hickory stick with his butter-yellow Case XX pocket knife. I can smell his smoldering Camel, resting on the edge of an ashtray shaped like the state of Georgia.
Of course as a child I thought horehounds were disgusting. A horehound’s flavor is hard to describe—somewhere between stale root beer and Pledge furniture polish. Plus, they weren’t even all that sweet.
People my grandaddy’s age didn’t eat the same candy we eat. These were men and women who got excited about things like red pistachios, peanut brittle, Mary Janes, saltwater taffy, and licorice whips.
In my grandfather’s youth, for instance, there was a candy bar called the “Chicken Dinner,” introduced in 1923 by the Sperry Candy Company in Milwaukee. The Chicken Dinner sold for ten cents and featured an illustration of a roasted chicken on each wrapper.
The bar was nuts and chocolate, and had absolutely nothing to do with cooked poultry. I once asked my grandmother about it.
Granny told me that during the Great Depression poverty-stricken kids would buy Chicken Dinner candy bars because their families couldn’t afford actual chicken dinners. In other words, the kids were spending ten cents on a fantasy.
Then Granny would stoop to tie the laces of my Chuck Taylors and say, “You have a lot to be grateful for, shug.”
And she’d kiss my forehead.
God rest Granny’s soul. She was something else. She lived in her kitchen. I remember walking into her aromatic galley to find an antique culinary world that disappeared with Packard Coupes and hand-crank coffee grinders.
In Granny’s kitchen, especially around Thanksgiving, you’d see all the old-lady concoctions you never see anymore. I’m talking about weird vintage foods directly from the pages of “Good Housekeeping” circa 1948.
Like green olive and spinach congealed salad with maraschino cherries. Fresh orange chiffon cake. Crusty tuna surprise—I think I’m gonna be sick. Oyster dressing. Ham and bananas hollandaise. And her most complicated dish: Fruit cocktail from the can, topped with Reddi Whip.
It all seems like a bygone universe now.
When the older waitress returns with our coffees, she notices the open bag of horehounds on our table. She points and says, “Are those horehounds?”
I smile. “They certainly are.”
“You know, I forgot we sold those. Those remind me of my grandfather.”
I present her the bag and rattle it for effect. “Want one?”
She glances both ways to make sure the coast is clear. “No, I couldn’t possibly…”
I keep shaking the bag. Sean Dietrich, Master of Temptation.
“Really?” she says. “Well, maybe just one.”
I pour a few hard candies into her open palm. She pops a lozenge into her mouth and I can hear it rattling around like she’s chewing ice.
“Thanks, shug,” she says as she walks away.
I was hoping she would kiss my forehead, but you can’t have everything.