The apex of the everyday cracker kingdom
Twice a year we drive to Macon, Georgia to visit Marsha’s family: stepmother Joyce; aunt Betty; and a couple of cousins. It’s a beautiful thousand-mile, two-day drive across Pennsylvania Dutch country, over the Mason-Dixon Line and down the sweep of the Shenandoah Valley to the piney woods of the south.
It’s good to keep up with the family she grew up with, especially as some are getting up there. But Macon, a regional hub an hour south of Atlanta, is a source for good eating too.
There’s the H & H Soul Food Restaurant, famous for fried chicken, where Mama Louise fed the Allman Brothers in their salad days. Uniquely southern institutions include the S & S Cafeteria, an all-day buffet of local specialties where mac and cheese is listed as a vegetable. Jeneane’s, a meat-plus-three eatery, is a favorite for traditional cooking served up with memorable cornmeal hoe cakes and biscuits.
We hope to eat at all of these local favorites when we visit, but the meal at the top of the list is dinner at the Idle Hour Country Club. It’s a grand old club, certainly one of the nicest in Central Georgia. The clubhouse overlooks lush greens and fairways, while the hallways, lined with antique furniture and golf art, are paved with plush carpet. The hushed wood-paneled dining rooms are sanctuaries of old-world comfort.
The food is good and the service as it should be. You wouldn’t guess that the real draw is the crackers. Soon after being seated, a basket of toasted saltines — like you’ve never had before — comes to the table accompanied by rolls and butter. Eagerly passed around as soon as presented, everyone takes a polite number of the warm crackers.
These are no ordinary saltines. They are the apex of the everyday cracker kingdom. While the club kitchen doesn’t share the recipe, Marsha tracked it down online. It turns out to be a staple of southern club cuisine.
If you’re mindful of salt intake or watching cholesterol levels these may not be for you. But their irresistible flavor, crisp bite and over-the-top richness combine to overcome good dietary judgement.
The crackers are thought to have originated at Atlanta’s posh Piedmont Driving Club founded in 1887 (it was carriages they were driving), where jacket and tie are still required in the dining room. But even when dressed to the nines, these gussied up saltines are a hit.
The recipe, attributed to the club, can be found at thesouthernkitchen.com. It calls for two sticks of butter, clarified, and 48 Nabisco saltine crackers. Nabisco is the only brand, they claim, that will maintain the required crispness under the assault of the butter. Toss the crackers in the butter and spread them on a cookie sheet in a single layer. Bake at 400° for three minutes. Serve warm!
This particular version of the recipe gives the nutritional information, although why anyone would want to know is beyond me.
When we eat at the Idle Hour, the only thing stopping the feeding frenzy is an empty basket. Refills are available, but is it wise?
There were a number of variables. How long to soak the saltines? What shelf position works best in the oven? How toasty-brown should the crackers get? As with most cooking, practice makes perfect, so we’ll need to eat some more.
The clubby crackers are truly egalitarian. Great for any occasion, they can be nibbled straight up, crumbled over soup or even as a surprise on the Thanksgiving table.
Frank Whitman can be reached at NotBreadAloneFW@gmail.com.