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Cracker Barrels for the Creative Classes

Jordan Somers

26.04.13

It would be an understatement to say I felt cozy sitting down for a dinner at Marlowe & Sons. It’s a bit like going to an art exhibition in old timey Americana––but where every piece in the show has been arranged with the relentlessness of a vaguely menacing, probably Teutonic curator whose aim is to grind you down under an iron heel of irresistible folksiness. No menus here––the specials are written on a chalkboard along with a slew of unfamiliar-sounding craft beers. Bright lights are banished in favor of the improbably dim glow of vintage Edison bulbs. But it’s the woodwork that really draws you into its narrative. The uneven wall paneling surrounding you and the roughhewn picnic-style tables recall something you might find in cabin on the 19th century frontier. As for the food, well, it’s undeniably great, though you’d suspect a good deal better and definitely more expensive than anything anyone ate at the Alamo. Later I walked down the street and checked out Maison Premiere, a restaurant/bar that wistfully describes itself as being “inspired by the hotel lobbies of days gone by, afternoons in Paris cafes, late night dinners brooding over bivalves and wading through glasses of pastis and absinthe.” Absinthe. That drink whose storied and slightly seedy past college freshman whisper about when its Degas week in Art History. Well, to be fair, that is exactly what it brings to mind: Paris, or at least Owen Wilson’s fantasy of it. A broken wood stove nestled in an alcove might have brought the lovely front room together, but it was the unforgettable pee I had using a Victorian pull chain water closet that truly endeared me.

It’s become impossible over the last few years to stroll more than a few blocks in the well-heeled, taste-making districts of the nation’s cities without noticing one of these places. Unimposing signage, wood paneling and low light are the giveaways from the street. Though they aren’t all going for a speakeasy vibe, it’s a classier variation on a general theme and, as often as not, the bar staff are wearing suspenders harkening back to the good old days of Prohibition. The other most commonplace form is the ambiguously rustic––though improbably urban––old timey establishment. These can be identified by the prevalence of apparently useless objects strewn haphazardly about with no unifying theme or apparent purpose, save underlining the aura of “OLDE.” Think yellowing pictures from the time before smiling was culturally acceptable in photography (whose subjects are of no noticeable relation to the owners), taxidermy, broken pieces of wrought iron farm implements in nooks and crannies, anchors, ropes, and other nondescript nautical equipment, mason jars and wood wood wood––the more uneven, grainy and natural in appearance the better. Call it the pre-stressed work boot look as interior design. Likewise, food and drink at such spots varies, usually according to décor: aperitifs difficult to say but easy to swallow for some, $15 plates of biscuits and gravy for others.

The aesthetic of studied unpretentiousness they aim for can, if you pay too much attention, be bewildering in spite of itself. Maybe that’s the point. Depending on who you ask, the move towards this look began sometime in the early years of the 21st century, probably in Williamsburg. But that really doesn’t matter. What does is that the food and beverage market is saturated with these places, the trend shows no sign of abating, and it’s probably not just for the traditional reasons people seem to enjoy being wined and dined in mood lighting. Whenever a trend becomes the norm, the ground beneath our feet has shifted, we’re living in a new cultural moment, and this is reason enough to take a closer look.

So, what is going on? Where does this fascination that is playing itself out in bars and restaurants come from and what, if anything, does it say about us? Playing with nostalgia and kitsch is, so to speak, nothing new. The Tang Dynasty poet Li Bai was fond of getting drunk and shocking polite society by wearing outfits that went out of style 700 years before. If you know where to look, history is one long rogue’s gallery of dandies––if not as often restaurateurs––adopting anachronisms and aping the styles of the lower classes as marks of distinction. But distinction from whom? Most often the answer has been a snarky aristocratic gesture aimed at distancing itself from the stifling, dreary, respectable, middle-brow and middle class conformity who is its natural enemy. The French were probably ahead of the curve here. Baudelaire, Flaubert and Rimbaud (absinthe!), along with the rest of the big guns of the 19th century’s version of the creative class, adopted “épater le bourgeois! (shock the middle classes!)” as both rallying cry and standard by which to judge the merit of all things. Less impish, though maybe more far reaching was Jean Jacques Rousseau’s idea of the “Noble Savage.” Briefly, if society was artificial, corrupt and corrupting, then, well obviously, the authentic and virtuous life must reside in naturalness and simplicity. You can see the enduring power of this in the flesh by looking at hippies and the folk revival scene of the 1960s. The “folk” whose music and culture inspired the interest of a generation of college students were those marginal Americans who, for one reason or another, had resisted the deluge of inauhthenticity that enveloped the American mainstream––salt of the earth types with whom, say, Dustin Hoffman’s chronically alienated young man in “The Graduate” might identify with as an alternative to a world consisting entirely of Radiohead’s fake plastic trees. The problem, according to Historian Grace Hale, was that the clothes didn’t make the man:

“…folk revivalists did not become ‘the folk.’ Moving to the mountains or the Delta, learning to play a banjo or guitar, wearing beards, working men’s clothes, long hair, coarse skirts, and sandals––none of these acts stripped young educated Americans of their class psychology, of their sense that they mattered in the world. Folk Fans accepted few limits on their own self-invention. They believed transcendence––escape from the limits of history––was possible and confused illusion with reality. Playing the top and bottom against the middle class, revivalists positioned themselves as a cultural, if not material, elite. They built their coalition on the new definition of authenticity––emotions, raw, real, and shared. The folk music revival of the 60’s rehabilitated American Individualism by reimagining class status as a cultural choice”

The key to understanding the motif at work here is, as Hale says, self-invention as a cultural choice, specifically, choosing to be something (anything?) other than a boring average American. An aristocracy of taste and, maybe, morality, brought about through an aesthetic alliance with the bottom and all-out war against the tedium of the middle.

The journalist Tom Wolfe stumbled upon something similar in a 1970 article entitled “Radical Chic.” There, the subject was an improbable party hosted by New York’s literary and artistic luminaries whose guests of honor were members of the Black Panther Party. The comedy of errors ensuing between cultural elite and political revolutionary was everything you’d expect making for a lot of laughs and remains among the funniest pieces of the era. Wolfe, however, was interested in why the socialites from the Upper West Side were so captivated with the socialists from the South Bronx in the first place. His answer was that the black revolutionaries, like the “folk” for the folk revivalists, were proxies for everything that the wonder bread jet-set felt they lacked––real, raw, unadulterated authenticity––and that their fascination took the form of romanticizing souls they couldn’t help but see as “primitive”––but in a good way! They were, he said, yearning for the mud:

“Nostalgie de la boue is a 19th-century French term that means, literally, “nostalgia for the mud.” Nostalgie de la boue tends to be a favorite motif whenever a great many new faces and a lot of new money enter Society. New arrivals have always had two ways of certifying their superiority over the hated “middle class.” They can take on the trappings of aristocracy, such as grand architecture, servants, parterre boxes and high protocol; and they can indulge in the gauche thrill of taking on certain styles of the lower orders. The two are by no means mutually exclusive; in fact, they are always used in combination. In England during the Regency period, a period much like our own––even to the point of the nation’s disastrous involvement in colonial wars during a period of mounting affluence––nostalgie de la boue was very much the rage. London socialites during the Regency adopted the flamboyant capes and wild driving styles of the coach drivers, the “bruiser” fashions and hair styles of the bare-knuckle prize fighters, the see-through, jutting-nipple fashions of the tavern girls, as well as a reckless new dance, the waltz.”

Sound familiar yet? Think of the great migration of the latest aristocracy of talent to New York over the last 15 years or so. From far and wide, Young Financiers, Social Media Starter-Uppers, Graphic Designers, New Media Producers––in short, the new creative classes––have all made New York, Chicago, San Francisco and the rest of the usual suspects their homes. Besides lots of new money, they bring that chip on the shoulder that has always given away a provincial-cum-cosmopolitan––making it in the big city, all the while defining themselves by the cultural distance between themselves and the middle-brow landscape of strip-malls and Olive Gardens they managed to escape. Like both the literary bohemians of the 19th century and the beads and beards set of the 20th, they want little to do with average American culture and their lifestyles and consumption habits––the same thing really––express it. While my neighbors aren’t dressing up like the cast of Les Misérables (yet? time will tell), they are going, every weekend, by the droves, to what now must be places that number in the hundreds, all of which look like a throw-back Jean Valjean might have felt comfortable having a beer in while plotting the overthrow of King Louis-Philippe with his buddies. It can be pretty dehumanizing working in front of a computer 40 or more hours a week so it’s not surprising that we’d want to get our rustic on when we can. Never mind that a world lit by Edison Bulbs is grossly energy inefficient and ideologically at odds with what we’d like to say about our locally sourced selves: We’re interested above all in the real thing––or at least the realer thing than our day jobs––and nothing seems to say this with as much force as tasteful wood paneling.

The great irony for the would-be urban rustic eatery and/or saloon so favored by the modern jeunesse dorée is that it has already been done, and by the enemy. Since 1969, the full force of American industry has been deployed erecting the faux folksy aesthetic as an economy of scale. With all the calculation of Standard Oil, Cracker Barrel––”the old country store”––slouches like a great, greasy beast across large sections of the USA, having long ago mastered the art of artless imprecision whose charms the city folk are discovering. Most notable in recent years for a spat of race-related offenses and its sub-Paula Deen fried fare, in the olden days, Cracker Barrel was a sort of Potemkin Village by the interstate where you took your family after church for lunch and showed them how it all used to be, right down to the mason jars, yellowing photographs, wrought iron farm tools and wood wood wood. Though the Urban and Strip-Mall varieties of the rustic experience may be similar, one man’s craft is usually another’s Kraft. The clienteles of these two universes not only don’t mix socially (at least not until those dreaded holiday trips), they vigorously grumble at one another from across an immense cultural divide in the now ritualistic spectacle of mutual accusation that makes up so much of American political life. If only they knew how much they actually had in common.

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Jordan Somers is a Freelance Copywriter and Adjunct Professor of History in New York City. In spite of himself, he enjoys happy hour oyster and drink specials in the establishments he’s described herein.

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