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.
Christina - November 20, 2021 7:25 am
Sweet memories and moments!
pdjpop - November 20, 2021 10:02 am
Loved the description of this special woman,
God bless you and Jamie this Thanksgiving.
I can’t wait to see my first Sean of the South Thanksgiving blog.
With love from Fairhope.
Rebee - November 20, 2021 12:16 pm
I purchased a percolator for coffee when I started working from home. Took forever to learn how to make good coffee. But it’s a connection with my mom who used a stovetop percolator. I lost her when I was just 12. Finding connections with her has been tough
But now I think about her every morning when I make my coffee.
Nostalgia is such a warm wonderful place to be. Thank you for sharing
Teresa Blankenship - November 20, 2021 12:33 pm
There is a lot to be said for coming up poor. Sweet memories ❤️
Vickie Martin - November 20, 2021 12:49 pm
This brought back such wonderful memories of days gone by. Thank you..
Marilyn - November 20, 2021 12:49 pm
I beg to differ with your opinion that Cracker Barrel is the only place in the USA one can find horehound candy. Herein a small town Ohio is a pharmacy that sells them and not too many miles away I know of another store that sells bulk candy and groceries that surely has horehound candy too. Now I’m not finding fault, but thought you might want to know. 🙂
Love reading your column each day and want to thank you. Blessings to you and Jamie as we approach Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Sonya Tuttle - November 20, 2021 1:04 pm
Never had that “candy” before, so intend to try it next time I go to Cracker Barrel. Thanks for old memories!
Paul McCutchen - November 20, 2021 1:17 pm
Do you know what else came out in 1948?? The Tucker car. I had to explain that one to my kids. Growing up in the country we only got the “sweets” that my Grand dad had at is country store,
Cathy Lynn Dennison - November 20, 2021 1:30 pm
I remember that candy and used to eat them all the time. I’m 66 and love your column, you are so real to me like I’m sitting across the table from you.
Peyton Lingle - November 20, 2021 1:32 pm
I’m surprised you did not mention Uncle Herschel’s Breakfast featuring the World’s best Fried Catfish.YUM!
Suellen - November 20, 2021 1:32 pm
I always remember my Grandma in her kitchen or messing in her flower beds (which were glorious) but mostly the kitchen. The kitchen was tiny. There was a table shoved up against the wall with barely enough room to walk around it. When my Grandparents bought this house out in the country it had only two tiny rooms and an out house. Over time Grandpa built cabinets in the kitchen that I envy to this day, a big enclosed porch, a bedroom (they’d been sleeping on a sofa bed) and a bathroom. They bought this house because it came with an acre and a half and they put in massive gardens every year. Grandpa also grew grapes and made his own wine. Eventually he built a 2 story garage. The lower half had a root cellar to keep their mass quantities of canned goods and it was always cold in there and there was a space to park the car though I don’t remember him actually parking in there. It usually housed all the other things he was working on. Homemade sauerkraut, apple cider, roll mops (fish fillets wrapped around pickles), you name it. The upper half was his wood shop where he cranked out furniture and all kinds of things. They also had a chicken coop and Grandma made the best fried chicken I’ve ever had. You even got to pick out your chicken for Sunday dinner. Grandpa would chop off his head and you’d watch him run headless around the yard. That was great fun for kids. Then the women would pluck the feathers. Looking back it just seemed like the perfect life. The whole family worked in the garden and all the women worked together to do the canning and making jelly. Always sumptuous meals on the table for everyone. We think that we’ve made progress with microwaves and the like I’m not so sure.
LIN ARNOLD - November 20, 2021 2:36 pm
Entering Cracker Barrel makes me feel like I’m getting a big ol’ hug from my Mom & Dad. You see, I live in North Georgia. My parents lived in Central Alabama, a good 3 hours away. When my Mom’s dementia got to the point that she didn’t know who Dad was, she wouldn’t get in the car with him. So my Dad would schedule all her doctor appointments on a single day and, once a month, I would make that 3 hour drive and help my Dad get her to those appointments. On my way home, I would stop at the same Cracker Barrel, just off I-85, about half way to the Georgia line. Then as things got worse, Dad was diagnosed with lung cancer that had already metastasized to his brain. I spent the last 4 months of his life in Alabama and my Mom had to be institutionalized. During those 4 months, trying to get my Dad to eat was a challenge to say the least. But let us walk into Cracker Barrel and the change in Dad was amazing. He’d sit there and drink his coffee, order fried eggs and bacon from the Senior’s Menu and drink his coffee. In short, HE ATE! Yes, eating at Cracker Barrel now is definitely bitter sweet for me. But they will never know how much they helped me through that devastating time. ……. I miss my Mom & Dad.
BJ - November 20, 2021 2:43 pm
Cathy M - November 20, 2021 2:55 pm
This is a gift as we approach Thanksgiving. I hope you realize how many of us start our day with you and carry it around with us all day. Grandparents are Special and I had four of the very best. I cherish my memories of them and I know they will be in the front line to greet me in heaven. I am headed to Cracker Barrel today. I will pass on the horehounds, no offense intended. However, I will buy a pecan pie for my family’s Thanksgiving meal. I just can’t make a pecan pie any better than Cracker Barrel. I hear their chicken pot pie is wonderful. I may have to stay for lunch. Happy Saturday and happy Thanksgiving to all.
Cathy M - November 20, 2021 3:02 pm
I forgot to say that that the pecan pie is at its best when slightly warmed with a scoop of Blue Bell vanilla on the side. Food for the gods, as my Mississippi grandmother used to say
MaryAnn A Dunham - November 20, 2021 3:13 pm
Sean, you’re SO right, we can’t have everything. But we have YOU, and through you, we travel back in time to our early days when grandmothers wore dresses all day long, stockings rolled up over their knees, aprons when they were in the kitchen, and clunky lace up leather shoes. My paternal grandmother wore a hairnet, under which her long, slightly blue hair was very artfully arranged to cover her pink scalp. At night, in their bathrooms you’d find a glass with their false teeth.
Because my parents had grown up in the same town, Rocky Mount, NC, where the Atlantic Coast Railroad tracks went smack dab right down the middle of Main Street, I could get on the train in Charleston and go visit both of them, as well as my many cousins on Mom’s side of the family, all in the same trip. I’d get to pick strawberries in Grandmama Mangum’s backyard, and vegetables in Uncle Albert’s huge garden, then eat them that very night at their supper table, where Aunt Mary’s biscuits were extra large so we didn’t have to keep passing the basket of biscuits every minute or so.
I was the eldest child in my family, and was the only one of us that rode that train alone to visit our grandparents and cousins. I think my parents were afraid that if the next eldest, Darrel, got on the train, he’d somehow make his way to the side of the engineer in the locomotive, attempting to wheedle his way to sit in his seat. He was a live wire and a charmer, that boy, as anyone who knew him would agree.
Both my grandfathers, two uncles, and at least 4 male cousins worked for the railroad. Our grandmothers worked hard keeping house, and raising children. Daddy was an only child, but his parents also raised one of his cousins. He LOVED riding his bike to the other side of town to visit his sweetheart, Mom, and her five siblings.Those days are long gone, except in our minds’ eyes, when Sean awakens them and brings them forward for a sweet, nostalgic visit.
Thank you, Sean.
Debbie g - November 20, 2021 3:26 pm
From this granny that you described Here’s your kiss 💋 on top of your head. Absolutely love you and Jamie. And love to all 🙂🙂
Larry Wall - November 20, 2021 4:28 pm
Sean, thanks a whole lot for bringing some sweet memories back to this 75 year old guy. I spent a lot of time with my paternal grandparents until their passing when I was about seven years old. My dad had died just before I turned two and my grandpa and one of my dad’s brothers operated a large farm with crops and cattle and sort of adopted me. I spent all of the time that I could with them learning all that I could. My grandma would buy me a few pieces of hard horehound candy from the rolling store vendor when he came through. She cooked on a wood-fired stove and cooked massive meals three times a day for those who helped on the farm, both male and female. Food was never taken off the large kitchen table when a meal was over. Grandma simply covered the table with a white cloth and added a few items for the next meal. We might have fried chicken for breakfast and at dinner it might be country ham and eggs with fresh vegetables from her garden next to the barn. And always fresh milk and lots of strong coffee. So many times to reminisce about due to today’s column. Thank you.
Stacey Wallace - November 20, 2021 4:35 pm
Thanks, Sean. My husband is 62, and I’m 58. We’ve never heard of horehounds.
Leigh Amiot - November 20, 2021 5:18 pm
Orange chiffon cake, sure would like a slice of that.
Terry Holm - November 20, 2021 5:57 pm
My dad taught my twin daughters to eat horehound when they were small. Now, at 43, they make sure to stop and buy it in a little store in Leavenworth, Washington, on our way to our annual family vacation. Dad could never convince me of it’s value, but my kids love it!
Gay - November 20, 2021 8:02 pm
Horehound candy… what a special memory , they were always in a covered “crystal” candy dish in my grandmother’s living room . She considered them natural medicine for cough or whatever! Thanks for allowing me to revisit a special memory.
MAM - November 20, 2021 9:11 pm
I think I had one once as a kid. I remember not liking some candy with a strange name. Guess I haven’t tried a horehound since. My more developed adult tastebuds might like it. I detested dark chocolate as a kid; now I prefer it to milk chocolate. Tastes do change.
Linda Moon - November 20, 2021 9:51 pm
Your first two words immediately made me feel nostalgic, and the waitress’s smile did too. Then you mentioned “on the road”. My many roadtrips are always memorable with nostalgia. So far, you’re batting a thousand for me in this Post. And then…Granny’s kitchen entered the story just when I thought it couldn’t get any better. So, if I ever give you a forehead kiss for all this nostalgia, I’d love it, shug…and I hope you would too!
Ann - November 21, 2021 2:08 am
We still love horehounds…for whatever reason…AND watermelon coconut bars!!..nostalgia is grounding and necessary in these crazy times, right shrug?
Jude - November 21, 2021 7:01 pm
My grandmother’s kitchen was special too. She cooked on a large iron stove, the wood had to be cut just so to fit in it, and from its oven came the best big biscuits and baked sweet potatoes. There was a 3 legged pot full of peas and butter beans she sat down in the back burner. They used chicory coffee purchase from the rolling store and now and again I can actually smell all those aromas coming from her kitchen. Oh, I used to love a couple of candy bars growing up, one a 7-Up Bar and the other a Royal Flush. Everyone I ask about them has never heard about them.
Dinah McNeil - November 28, 2021 2:38 pm
What a wonderful way to start any day – 11/28/2021. Love going to Cracker Barrel and it’s the great variety of candy that gets my attention.
Your writing had me at the word SHUG. So meaningful if one is from the South. I wish you well. Keep the thought provoking words in print.
I’ll be watching for offerings from Sean of the South.. .
Sbhark - December 28, 2021 1:36 pm
That was a good one. A change of pace with a chuckle not a tear. Thank you again,