In Search of Southern Cooking in
America at Large:
Cracker Barrel, M3, and Fried Okra
I loved going on family road trips as a kid. Sure, eight hours on I-85 may not sound like a barrel of laughs to most people, but the dullness of the road belied the awesomeness that was the Williams family law of road-trip food. It was any ten-year-old’s dream: Sugary cereal was no longer forbidden. That’s right, I was given permission to down Lucky Charms by the fistful. Goodbye Cheerios. Hello thirty-minute sugar high. I don’t know what my parents were thinking.
In addition to the generous cereal gift, every afternoon we got to pick out some form of junk food to scarf down for “Mama’s Treat.” I don’t remember why the treat was always from my mom, but nonetheless, my siblings and I feasted on almond M&Ms, push-up pops, and sometimes even Ben and Jerry’s ice cream bars (at the hoity-toity rest stops, of course) each and every family trip. The best afternoon treats came not from a gas station, however, but from Cracker Barrel.
Yes, Cracker Barrel, home of the “Old Country Store,” that peg game, and giant wooly checkers mats placed perilously close to an equally giant fireplace. It was the “Country Store” half that held the most intrigue for my brother, sister, and me since it contained not only toys and stuffed animals that made noise but also shelves upon shelves of candy wrapped in retro paper. While we waited the inevitable forty-five minutes for a non-smoking table, I ran in circles fraught with indecision. Did I want rock candy, a Moon Pie, or a gigantic cavity-inducing Sugar Daddy for my afternoon treat? What about those weird jelly candies covered in sprinkles? Or how about a box of SnoCaps? The vacillation was enough to give any kid an aneurism, but luckily we were always rescued from certain mental overdrive by the P.A. system announcing that our table was ready.
When I was at my youngest and least conscious of the concept of a balanced meal, I would order pancakes at any hour of the day, slather them with “butter spread,” and scarf them down with a side of biscuits and strawberry jam. A few years later, I decided I really needed to eat vegetables during meal times, even at Cracker Barrel. So I switched my routine to the “Country Vegetable Plate” and never looked back. My specific vegetable selection varied depending on my mood, but I never ever forgot to order the fried okra. At once crunchy, tender, and a little bit slimy, Cracker Barrel’s fried okra were (and still are) a thing of mass-produced food wonder. Never have I experienced a fried vegetable so consistent: The breading is always almost burned, the okra is always almost overcooked, and the interior ooze is always almost too hot to eat. The okra scoots right up to the edge of ruin, and, amidst the peril of furiously bubbling oil, the strong heartiness of the vegetable really shines.
In fact, just to prove to myself that the ‘Barrel’s okra are, in fact, the apex of fried vegetables, I drove up to Tewksbury, Massachusetts, just to experience the dish again. Of course, a visit to Cracker Barrel would not be complete without a full on vegetable platter and a post-meal mind-numbing gander through the Country Store.
My dining companion and I landed in Tewksbury a little before noon. The parking lot was comfortably full, but not so jam-packed that I couldn’t nail a coveted shady spot. Despite the warm weather, we were excited to see that no one was idling on the gleaming white rocking chairs lined in military-straight rows out front. As any Cracker Barrel regular knows, an absence of lazy rockers means a short wait for a table. Sure enough, we walked in and sat straight down. A thorough examination of the candy section would have to wait until after the meal.
The dining area of this particular Massachusetts location was just exactly the same as any other I have visited: the walls adorned with the same random kitschy décor, the space divided into two semi-private dining areas (a relic of older, pre-ban “smoking” and “non-smoking” sections), the wooden tables enveloped by oversized menus and awkward chairs, and the peg game hiding behind the “seasonal” menu tab. Most of the tables were filled with the post-church crowd. There was plenty of big hair and awkward-fitting sundresses. The only thing missing was the abundance of y’alls, sirs, and ma’ams peppering the conversation.
Just like the décor, the food was miraculously identical to its Southern progenitors. My friend went the breakfast route and ordered a side of just about everything one could want before noon: scrambled eggs, bacon, grits, pancakes, cornbread, biscuits, and gravy. After giggling a bit over the volume of food, he took a forkful of bacon and eggs, remarking, “Yes, this is what Cracker Barrel tastes like.” Must be something in the flattop grease.
Besides the requisite okra, I ordered up braised green beans, mustard greens, and pinto beans to round out my vegetable platter. Characteristically, I ignored my three extra sides and dug right into the vegetable nuggets. Each searing hot bite of fried okra was identical to the ones in my memory, bringing me back to a world of Lucky Charms and afternoon treats. After eating, I did about thirty laps around the candy section before grabbing a couple of miniature Moon Pies. I managed to save them all the way home before popping them in the microwave and watching the marshmallow explode. (I highly recommend this preparation to any fans of fighting peeps.)
A twenty-minute drive and several worlds away sits a brand-spanking new Southern restaurant in Davis Square, Somerville. Cryptically named M3 (standing for “meat and three”), this hip new diner is the brainchild of Boston restaurateur Jason Owens and is infuriatingly difficult to Google. A parade of Yelp reviews praising the fried okra led me to ignore my usual three-month rule for new restaurants and jump in to try the food in the restaurant’s two-week infancy.
Perhaps we should have run away scared when our waitress came up to our table with an overeager grin, shouted “HI Y’ALL” in a fake accent, and performed an awkward arm-swinging jig. But run we didn’t. I had fried okra to eat.
M3’s version is served in a cute little popcorn tub, elevating the humble nuggets above all other vegetables on the plate. A quick peek inside the cardboard throne revealed fried okra unlike any I had ever eaten. (Would you really expect a restaurant that encourages overly enthusiastic “y’alls” to emanate from their Boston-bred servers to prepare such a plain-Jane dish?) Instead of dredging fresh okra in buttermilk and cornmeal, the cooks at M3 first pickle the okra, and then cover it in tempura batter before frying.
The pickling was, admittedly, a fabulous idea. Anyone who has indulged in the greatness that is fried pickle slices knows the power of briny, greasy, crunchy cucumbers. Pickled okra is even better: It retains all of its snap, crackle, and pop. Tempura batter, on the other hand, was not so wise. Okra needs a hefty cornmeal coating to stand up to its hardy personality. The light, elegant tempura coating seemed to slip away, leaving me with a popcorn tub of warm pickles. I’d take Cracker Barrel’s predictably crisp coating any day.
Who cares if its consistency comes straight out of a freezer bag (because, let’s face it, how else could they pull off this feat)? In a land where the fried okra has to be pickled first and then coated in tempura batter to earn praise, it is comforting to know that tradition lives on at each and every Cracker Barrel littered along the highway.