We Californians like to point out that we lack for nothing in our great state.
Beaches to frolic or laze upon, mountains to hike, bike and ski, deserts with their stark beauty. Every shade of urban sprawl. Small-town living slow as molasses, big-city skylights and everything in between. The arts of every sort, sports, entertainment, culture and ethnic diversity.
But on our recent spring-break road trip through Arizona, I discovered something we don't have. Something that 42 other states have kept secret from us for more than 40 years.
The restaurant and old country store. Not the brick-cheese brand owned by Kraft Foods.
For years, I'd heard about Cracker Barrel from friends who've migrated from the mythical lands east of the Colorado River. When they spoke of it, their bodies went limp with pleasure the way ours do when we book a hot-stone treatment at Burke Williams. They crave their Cracker Barrel like Angelenos do their Napa cabernet, sunlight, or tomatoes from Mexico.
My friend Scott the Southern Gentlemen billed it this way: "It's like being at Universal Studios if there was a Hatfield & McCoy ride. You enter and exit through a themed gift shop and the only ride is the nostalgic taste-bud experience of my grandmother's home-cooked southern meals."
The only thing missing is a log-flume ride.
Their website says this of founder Dan Evins: "[He] began to think about all the things that would make him feel comfortable were he far from home. Things like big jars of candy and homemade jellies, pot-bellied stoves, folks who let you take your time. He thought about simple, honest country food, and a store where you could buy someone a gift that was actually worth having."
So, while in Flagstaff to visit Scott's family, they took us to Cracker Barrel to show us what we were missing.
As a native city boy, I have no idea what an "old country store" is, but this had to be it. It looks like something fabricated on a movie set or at Disneyland. The front porch is lined with rocking chairs – to rest in after a heart-stopping meal or to take home for $139.99.
I expected Andy Griffith and Barney Fife to mosey out the front door spinning some yarn about Goober and Floyd's latest hijinks.
The gift shop sells cornbread and pancake mix, Black Jack and Beeman's gum, hard candy and saltwater taffy; scarves, ties and handmade jewelry; cast-iron frying pans, throw pillows and figurines.
The dining room features wood paneling and flooring. Upon the walls hang memorabilia, sleds and cooking gadgets unseen in 100 years; the world's largest safety pin, deer heads and wooden tennis rackets; leather luggage, baseball mitts and pictures of your great-grandparents.
Every table is a kitchen table, each with that peg game no one knows how to play.
I ordered the Country Boy breakfast because it had every single item on the menu in one meal. They serve a thing called "grits." I don't know what they are. And I don't like them. But I like any place bold enough to serve them. Southerners say they like grits the way Hawaiians say they like poi. Both are lying, but that's OK.
I kept expecting Aunt Bee to come out of the kitchen wiping her hands on her apron, asking if we liked the fried apples.
When I researched why California had been denied this make-believe den of warmth and toastiness, I found out Cracker Barrel's headquarters in Lebanon, Tenn., had done market analysis determining the old country store wouldn't profit in the Golden State.
Perhaps they feared their battered, southern-fried, gravy-drowned fare wouldn't suit our earthier, kale-munching palates and faux-tan sensibilities. Perhaps the antiques and tchotchkes on the walls presented too steep a liability in earthquake country. Or maybe it was that episode back in the '90s when they took heat for their stance against gay and lesbian employees and discriminatory practices against black and female employees.
Heck, who didn't in the 20th century? But this is a new and forgiving millennium.
Whatever their reason, I think they're wrong. We've embraced Chick-fil-A, the Kentucky Colonel and "The Real Housewives of Atlanta." It's time California got a Cracker Barrel. I, for one, could use a place that makes me feel at home. Even if it is a stranger's home. From another generation.
In a world turned upside-down, fragmented and overly-cautious, it might do us some good.