During a recent road trip, we made a stop at America’s Most Wood-Paneled Eatery: Cracker Barrel. This restaurant is what happens when you dress a Waffle House in wicker and mate it with a flea market.
While my wife changed our toddler’s diaper, I took my infant son inside to get our name on the list. It doesn’t matter when you go there, Cracker Barrel always a 25-minute wait. That was the case here too, even though I could see empty tables. Maybe the wait isn’t for a table, but to give you a chance to reflect upon the life choices that brought you there.
They finally escorted us to our table, and as I sat down, I was faintly aware of being watched. This is what a gazelle must feel when grazing in a prairie that’s just a little too quiet. I glanced up at the table beside us. All six people sitting there were staring at us. All of them. They looked nice enough; they were probably a group of great grandparents at their weekly Cruckle Bucket outing, enjoying the new wood-fired biscuit pot pie. Normally, this group would be as intimidating as, well, a group of great grandparents. But here and now, with their vacant hungry gazes, my fight-or-flight response kicked in.
As I placed my son in his seat, he looked up at me with his innocent, joyous five-month-old face. His eyes twinkled, and his lips let loose a drip of drool. He has such a cute face, with such pinchable chubby cheeks…
I turned back to the table next to me. The seniors were licking their lips. Their hands all miming pinching motions with their fingers. His cheeks. They wanted his cheeks!
That was the moment I realized that by bringing my chubby infant son into a Cracker Barrel, I was effectively throwing chum in shark-infested waters. And they were circling. I averted my gaze from the table next to us, catching a glimpse of the table behind us. The two customers there – about the same age – were also staring at us. The table on the other side of the aisle – more blue-haired predators sizing up their prey. Every table had their sights set on us. The featured entree today was baby cheeks.
I was trying to comprehend our dire situation when my wife finally arrived with my daughter. The hostess who escorted them and her rust-colored apron seemed to break the spell. At once, the entire restaurant remembered they needed to take their glucose medicine before the food arrived. There was much mumbling and rummaging through purses.
We enjoyed a relatively quiet meal. Well, quiet by Cracker Barrel standards. A quiet Cracker Barrel would defy audio physics. Few people know this, but the washboards and cast iron skillets on the lattice walls are acoustically tuned to echo the spirit sounds of Gustav Nebel inventing the Werther’s Original. It’s ironic that a restaurant catering to a predominantly hearing-aided customer base would operate at volumes you only find at Motörhead concerts.
After we finished our food – I mean, our bacon grease and apple butter – my daughter wanted to go look at the toys. For as much as I make fun of Cackle Barren, I really do have to compliment their toy section. Usually the most expensive toys are the ones kids want the most. Cracker Barrel has managed to stock their toy department with expensive toys that no kids want. It’s refreshing to watch your kid play with a $19.95 rubber frog for a few minutes then not want to take it home.
Anyway, my wife took her, and I volunteered to stay behind to wait for our check. That’s when the sharks started to circle.
One by one, the cheek-thirsty seniors got up from their tables to leave the restaurant, and just as bad luck would have it, we were sitting right on the path out of the dining area. Every ogling bystander passed our way. I pulled my son in close and said a prayer for safe passage.
If you’re ever in a similar situation, it’s important to know that grandparents only crave baby cheeks if they can see them. Their vision is selective that way. As long as you can shield the baby from view, you’re safe.
The table next to us got up and passed by without incident. The table behind us was the one that required special maneuvering. As they got up and scooted by, I pretended to look for a burp rag so I could rotate around in my seat. Unfortunately, I had no idea that by doing so, I pushed my infant – plump cheeks and all – directly into the path of Myrtle “Cheek Tweak” Moretti. I never saw her coming.
Before I could react, Myrtle was leaned down in my son’s face. “Aw, isn’t he cute,” she said as she grabbed a fist full of pure baby face fat.
As she jostled his face like she was trying to get better reception, she cooed, “I could just eat him up.” And I believed her. Those dentures could have chewed through a lead pipe.
Babies are like catnip for old people. They can’t resist the urge to touch, paw, claw, poke and squeeze them. Once at the grocery store, an old lady kissed my daughter on the cheek. She was a complete stranger! The level of gross reached astronomical heights.
The thing is, I sort of understand. That generation grew up in a time when cars had no seatbelts. A popular pastime was lawn darts, a game where you literally threw metal spikes at your friends. Their favorite cartoon characters smoked. Maybe to them, germs are just mythical creatures, like unicorns or Pat Sajak.
Once I recovered from my shock, I pulled my son away, smiled awkwardly and tried to carry on small talk as if my child didn’t just get so extremely pinched that it took 10 years off his life expectancy. That’s when I learned her name, where she came from, all about her parents, her kids, where she lives now. It’s really no wonder why seniors tend to fall victim to identity theft. In that one conversation, I’m pretty sure she gave me her passwords and everything I’d need to answer her security questions.
Finally, the waitress came back with my check, and Myrtle scuttled along on her way. I waved a twig of sage over my son to purify his spirit, then scooped up our belongings to meet the rest of our family in the gift shop that time forgot. I’d like to say we bought nothing else, that the store is stocked with inventory that appeals to no one, but I can’t. Something happens to you when you walk through those crowded aisles. The random assortment of products puts you in a mindless trance. It turns out they had Krispy Kreme-flavored jelly beans, which I don’t even remember buying. When I blinked back to reality, we were already on the road and I was putting a handful of them in my mouth.
I’ve spent some time reflecting on that visit. We waited forever to eat a mediocre meal in a room that was too loud next to people that don’t respect personal space. We made fun of overpriced toys while simultaneously overpaying for junk food that tasted like other junk food. We endured emotional trauma that will probably affect our family for generations.
So yeah, it was a pretty normal trip to Cracker Barrel.