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redeyechicago.com

Urbane, Sophisticated Author Still Loves Bob Evans

Stephen Markley

7:51 PM CDT, April 23, 2012

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I spent last week catching rides across the Midwest, from Chicago to Columbus to Cleveland to my hometown to Columbus to St. Louis back to Chicago, and no, I’m not ashamed that despite being a cool, sophisticated, cosmopolitan, urbanite, refined Renaissance-ish city-dweller, I love Bob Evans, and I eat there every time I’m back in Ohio.

First of all, you must acknowledge something about driving on Midwestern Interstate highways like I-70 or I-55, which is that your only food options are factory-processed meat accompanied by some type of potatoes chits fried in leftover hoof-fat from pigs that have been tortured to death. You’re not getting free-range anything. If those are one’s options, I know where my loyalties lie, which is why I spent the seven hours from Columbus to St. Louis searching for a Bob Evans.

Bob Evans is the greatest restaurant chain in the Midwest, having figured out far more effectively than those hacks and losers at Applebees how to repackage the same five ingredients into enough meals to fill seven menu pages. Whenever I take long road trips, I usually hole up in a back corner booth and read for an hour while a waitress who calls me, “Hon,” at a clip usually reserved for badly written screenplays trying to approximate the way “real” Americans talk, brings me endless coffee and meals with the following names:

“Classic Bacon Turkey Melt”

“Farmer’s Fresh Breakfast Egg Combo”

“Bacon Turkey Classic”

“Farmer’s Fresh Egg Classic Breakfast”

“Bacon Turkey Egg Cheese Breakfast Farmer’s Classic”

It’s the best way to break up a drive that takes you by more born-again billboards than any other stretch of the Midwest. Unlike the Bob Evans’ breakfast combo, I’m not making up that there is billboard on 70 that is about two stories high and says, “JESUS IS REAL” in letters tall enough to guard Kevin Durant.

(Since I was a young boy, I’ve wanted to have arguments with these billboards along the lines of, “Who are you trying to convince with that over-needy statement, Billboard? Me or yourself?”)

My only point being (I know you’re skeptical that I have one at all) that Bob Evans is great, and that any discussion of the cheerful, friendly Bob Evans ethos manufactured in Bob Evans corporate headquarters must eventually lead to a discussion of Cracker Barrel.

To put it bluntly, Cracker Barrel is dogshit.

Everything that makes Bob Evans kitsch totally endearing and familiar in its own laughable way becomes a grotesque facsimile of cheap corporatized Americana in the hands of those buffoons at Cracker Barrel. Their manufactured kitsch drips with condescension and disquieted dread as soon as you step through the doors of the “old country store.” In the background hums a constant thrum of Cracker Barrel-approved drippy country music that would make Johnny Cash or Merle Haggard blow their brains out.

All this is to say that I ate at a Cracker Barrel on 55 while hurtling back from St. Louis to Chicago—and only because I was starving and hadn’t seen a Bob Evans sign since Springfield where that restaurant sits almost directly under a coal-fired power plant.

Immediately, I regretted my weakness by landing at this Cracker Barrel. Even the menu items read like a Fox News parody of a Left Coast Liberal Elitist trying to ridicule a down-to-earth country grandmother. I believe I ordered the “Cracker Barrel Good Ole Country Boy Smokehouse Breakfast with Country Ham, Pork Chops or Steak grilled to order, Three Eggs cooked to order and served with Fried Apples, Hashbrown Casserole, Grits, Sawmill Buckshot Gravy and Aunt Edna’s Homemade Buttermilk Biscuits along with real Hand-Churned Golden Butter and the best Preserves, Jam n' Apple Butter you seen in your day, I’ll tell you what!”

Also, the waitress wouldn’t let me substitute the biscuits for toast. F***ing Cracker Barrel.