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    Auction Finds

    A real-life homespun cracker barrel

    When I saw the large barrel atop a table at the auction house, I had to explore it because I have a thing for old wooden boxes. It was scruffy and marred, and the bottom looked as if it had been stained by water. Near the top was the remnant of a label, so I moved in closer to read it:

    “Exton’s The Best Crackers.” A genuine cracker barrel, I thought.

    Deep in my mind I may have known of the existence of cracker barrels, but the only one I knew of for sure was the southern-style restaurant and its “country store” you walked through to get to the eatery. Whenever I go into a Cracker Barrel restaurant, my eyes wander the walls of vintage tools, photos and other items as I wait for my order. It’s a fascinating place to eat, especially if you’re into history and old stuff.

    I also check to see if there are any black folks in the photos – since a lot of us eat there, too – but I don’t usually find many of them. The chain was accused of discrimination in its treatment of African American customers about 15 years ago, and the lawsuits were settled.

    cracker barrel

    An up-close view of the label on the cracker barrel at auction.

    The restaurant borrowed from the history of the real cracker barrel, as I learned later. Founded in 1969 in Tennessee, Cracker Barrel was designed to look like a general store from the past, right down to the items on the walls.

    The barrel at auction seemingly held crackers made by the founder of the oyster cracker, Adam Exton, a baker from Trenton, NJ, in 1847. Here’s a drawing of Exton’s display of crackers at the 1876 Centennial International Exhibition in Philadelphia, the country’s first world’s fair.

    During that time, soda crackers were shipped to general stores and sold “a nickle a handful” out of open barrels. Customers could also buy crackers scooped from the barrels and sold in paper bags.

    The general-store barrels became the spot where people would gather to socialize and philosophize, engaging in what was called “crackerbarrel philosophy,” also said to have been practiced by President Lincoln who himself once owned a general store. Some folks were apparently welcomed while others were described as loafers who sat around the pot-bellied stove and close to the cracker barrel, eating up profits and scaring away customers.

    Cracker barrel

    Full view of the cracker barrel.

    This practice of meeting up was said to be akin to us standing around the water cooler, or a group of guys meeting up at Cracker Barrel the restaurant or a local diner every morning for coffee.

    The crackers were also known as common crackers, and were often eaten with cheese. They were not the only products in barrels; others included molasses, vinegar, pickles, coal, oil and whiskey.

    The word cracker without the barrel caused a stir last year. In a tongue-in-cheek petition, an Iowa man urged people to protest the restaurant’s use of the word in its name because the term was offensive to white people. The petition caught on as real, and thousands signed it and the media grabbed hold of it.

    No one seems to know how it became a slur, according to the Oxford Dictionaries website, but the term may have come from the word “corn-cracker.” That term was “a contemptuous term for a poor white in the southern US, probably after their subsistence on corn, although there is no conclusive evidence for this connection.”

    Since the restaurant’s name came from an actual barrel and its place in general-store history, Cracker Barrel assured everyone that it would keep its name.

    Crackers remained in barrels until the late 19th century when Adolphus Green, a founder of the National Biscuit Co., started wrapping his crackers in boxes and calling them Uneeda Biscuits, which he considered a little fancier than crackers. Biscuit was term that had been long used by the English to describe their handmade crackers. Green figured the crackers would be fresher than the stale ones in the barrels. The company later became known as Nabisco.

     

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