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Mesa Musings: Celebrating 35 years with Southern comfort food

My wife, Hedy, and I will celebrate our 35th wedding anniversary next week.

We were married in June 1975 and have been fortunate to spend past wedding anniversaries in Hawaii, Paris, Switzerland, Ireland and on Northern California's Russian River. This year, we'll stay with two of our daughters and five of our grandchildren in North Carolina.

The highlight of highlights will no doubt be our anniversary dinner at the Cracker Barrel.

OK, that's not exactly dinner on Waikiki Beach or in Paris' Saint Germain district, but don't be hasty in judging North Carolina … or the modestly priced Cracker Barrel!

Are you familiar with the establishment?

Its official title is the Cracker Barrel Old Country Store and Restaurant. Founded in 1969 and headquartered in Lebanon, Tenn., Cracker Barrel has nearly 600 locations in 41 states — though not in this state. Californians don't know what they're missing.

The majority of the chain's locations are in the Old South. Every meal is a Sunday-after-church family gathering.

Hedy and I have eaten at dozens of Cracker Barrels in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, Virginia and Maryland. We can attest to the fact that they're all exactly alike — right down to the placement of the restrooms.

Combining a retail store (laden with nostalgic gifts, children's toys, collectibles and old-fashioned candies) and a restaurant, the Cracker Barrel is a Southern-themed chain — complete with rocking chairs on the wrap-around front porch. Patrons play checkers while waiting to be seated — and there's almost always a wait.

The restaurant serves traditional Southern "comfort food."

"Comfort food" from below the Mason-Dixon Line includes (but is not limited to) barbecue, fried chicken, fried catfish, biscuits and gravy, grits, chicken and dumplings, shrimp and okra gumbo, cornbread, hush puppies, pulled pork, peach cobbler and pecan pie. The Cracker Barrel offers a menu that would make Paula Deen proud.

A cardiologist friend of mine who attended medical school at Duke University refers to Southern cooking as "heart attack on a plate." I say the risk is worth it.

I attended a professional seminar a few years back in Orange County and, during a roundtable discussion, the conversation turned to food. People began volunteering information about their favorite eateries and watering holes.

One portly gentleman stated rather reverentially: "I suppose none of you has ever heard of — much less experienced — the Cracker Barrel," as if to imply he'd undergone a dining experience so profound that O.C. residents would be hard-pressed to offer a psycho-physiological equivalent.

He was right. His "hidden treasure" was unknown to any person seated at the table (except me). In fact, the other participants appeared slightly bemused as he waxed rhapsodic about Cracker Barrel fare.

I made his day.

"I've been to Cracker Barrel!" I piped up.

His eyes lit up and he looked directly at me for the first time. I could tell, at that moment, we'd become brothers for life.

Anyway, getting back to the upcoming 35th wedding anniversary.

From the first moment I laid eyes on her — 37 years ago — I was smitten. Hedy was remarkable. But if someone had told me then how my life would unfold, I'd have surely thought him daft!

I've been magnificently blessed.

Hedy and I were married at a church in Garden Grove and had our reception at her parents' home in Costa Mesa. Following a honeymoon in Hawaii, we moved into a cozy three-bedroom abode in Mesa del Mar.

Thereafter, we began to raise a family and build our lives. We involved ourselves in Indian princesses, school activities, church groups and camps, sporting events, dance programs, gymnastics, vacation trips, music and theater productions, doctors' visits and spiritual pursuits. I was employed as an administrator at Orange Coast College, and Hedy was a full-time Mom who later spent nearly 20 years teaching middle school.

The years passed in a blur. Our three girls are now married and living productive lives. Hedy and I are retired grandparents.

Like I say, I'm blessed.

Happy anniversary, sweetheart! After our Cracker Barrel meal, let's share an order of peach cobbler … à la mode.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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