Harriet Alexander joins the Jack Daniel's fans who come for the distillery and stay for Miss Mary's meatloaf.
WE ARE mingling with 100 strangers outside a grand old house in Tennessee, clutching our meal tickets and salivating. It is 2.45pm and there are still 15 minutes between us and lunch – not the most convenient time for what they call the midday dinner in these parts but it was the only slot available at Miss Mary Bobo's Boarding House.
Halfway between Nashville in Tennessee and Huntsville in Alabama, Lynchburg gets a disproportionate number of tourists for a one-traffic-light town in a dry county. The Jack Daniel's distillery, which is based in the town, attracts 200,000 visitors each year. And the Jack Daniel's barbecue championship event held on the last weekend of every October temporarily boosts the population to 20,000. Most visitors to Lynchburg come for one of those attractions and eat at Miss Mary Bobo's while they're here.
But locals reckon the real attraction is the home-style southern comfort food served at the town's former boarding house and its three daily lunch sittings are generally booked weeks in advance. Indeed, the voice at the end of the phone when we called from Australia to make our reservation expressed only mild surprise at our origin. "That's a long way to come for lunch," she says.
Diners are told to come 15 minutes early to secure a place and receive a card inscribed with the name of their dining room. At 3pm precisely, proprietor Lynne Tolley rings a bell and calls out the names of the dining rooms, with each group instructed to follow a hostess. We are assigned to Miss Anna, a tiny, grey, beaming woman who waves her hand in the air like a tour guide while we troop behind her to a room with two french doors, an empty fireplace and a large round table. Sweet iced tea is waiting at each place mat and a feast is laid out in the centre.
Each of these dining rooms was originally a bedroom. It was established as a boarding house by a doctor in the late 19th century and taken over by Jack and Mary Bobo in 1908, who cemented its reputation as a comfortable boarding house with superb food. Miss Mary Bobo ran it until she died in 1983, a month before her 102nd birthday. Travelling salesmen stayed here instead of sleeping in their cars – the usual fate as they travelled the country. Each room had two double beds and slept four men.
The menu has changed little since, though Jack Daniel's has been introduced as an ingredient in some recipes, which would never have been tolerated by the teetotal Miss Mary. She allowed no drinking in the house, even among the magistrates who stayed. But when renovations were carried out after her death, a stash of old empty bottles was found at the back fence.
Today's smorgasbord includes catfish, meatloaf, fried okra, red potatoes with butter and parsley sauce, coleslaw, candied apples, pinto beans with country ham hock, chilli rice casserole and cornbread muffins. The okra and cornbread are daily staples but we are slightly disappointed to see that the boarding house specialty – fried chicken – is not on the menu.
No matter. The catfish is boneless and tender, with a crispy fried skin. The meatloaf is the tastiest, sloppiest thing that a fork has ever been expected to tackle, with a rich, sweet sauce. But my favourite is the chilli rice casserole, sweet and spicy and hearty.
As we eat, Miss Anna tells us the history of the boarding house, the town and her experiences of both. We learn that Miss Mary did not accommodate women at the boarding house until quite late in the piece and didn't really like them because they were too much trouble. And, despite Moore County having been dry since Prohibition, it is legal to drink alcohol, just not buy it. The Jack Daniel's employees are given a free bottle of whiskey on the first Friday of every month, which they have nicknamed "Good Friday", and many people hoard them in the closet. "Lynchburg has more closet drinkers than any other town in the county," Miss Anna says.
She used to live on a dairy farm two counties away but she and her husband retired to Lynchburg, which is reputedly one of the prettiest parts of the state. They spent the first few months fishing and Miss Anna got mightily sick of it, so she jumped at the chance to work at Miss Mary Bobo's. She used to go home to her husband so excited by all the stories she had heard and people she'd met that she would still be talking about them as she and her husband slipped under the covers. Finally he would say: "Can we put Miss Mary to bed now?"
After Miss Mary died, the people of Lynchburg were concerned about what would happen to the boarding house but the distillery stepped in like a knight in shining armour and bought it. Lynne Tolley, the proprietor, is the the great-grandniece of Jack Daniel. There are free daily tours of the distillery, which take visitors through the whiskey-making process, even allowing them the opportunity to stick their heads over the vats of bubbling alcohol. Those who inhale too deeply (almost everyone) spring back when the fizz goes up their nose. Then the guides recommend Miss Mary Bobo's for lunch and the two businesses feed off each other to keep the town alive.
Miss Mary apparently said she had seen Lynchburg grow from a tranquil town of 400 to a thriving town of 400.
The plates of food are seemingly bottomless but eventually we grind to a halt. There is still one dish to come and it's disgustingly delicious. But the topping would leave Miss Mary rolling in her grave: chocolate fudge pie with Jack Daniel's whipped cream.
Most major cities in the US have direct flights to Nashville International Airport. It takes about 1 1/2 hours to drive from the airport to Lynchburg.
Lynchburg Country Inn (+1 931 759 5995, lynchburgcountryinn.com) is the only motel in town but there are more in neighbouring towns Tullahoma and Fayetteville, each about 15 minutes' drive away, and plenty of B&Bs to allow you to experience genuine southern hospitality.
Miss Mary Bobo's Boarding House (+1 931 759 7394) requires reservations. Or wander into the Bar-B-Que Caboose Cafe, Elk River Coffee Co or Iron Kettle restaurant.
The Jack Daniel's website offers information about the distillery and the town. jackdaniels.com.