By Doc Lawrence –
Two villages in rural middle Tennessee showcase much of America’s grass-roots mosaic. If you suffer from the dreaded Big City Blues, but have no yearning for roughing it, then destination gems Bell Buckle and Lynchburg will welcome you with friendly arms.
For years I have meandered along twisting, two-lane roads into these rolling hills and hollows to dine, drink and learn. Each visit brings memories of Ireland’s interior. Blessed with a fairytale name, Bell Buckle glows with charm while Lynchburg maintains an exalted status as the only home of the world’s most popular whiskey.
Lynchburg’s fabled Jack Daniel’s Distillery and the annual international barbecue competition are uniquely American and Southern. Visit this truly gorgeous village that looks like a Norman Rockwell painting and the cultural exploration begins. Tour the distillery and the museum and you learn that the name Jack Daniel ranks alongside Tennessee legends like Davy Crockett and Andrew Jackson. There’s barbecue, easily the most popular food in America, and on one late October weekend award-winning
masters of the barbecue grill from throughout the planet come to vie for prize money and prestige at the 26th edition of what is known as “The Jack.”
More than a competition, “The Jack” is an international contest with barbecue champs including South Africa, Poland, Canada, Germany and more competing with other nations for one of the awards. This is also a weekend for eunion, greeting Master Distiller Jeff Arnett and other notables including two who judge the competition with me, Tennessee’s Director of Tourism Susan Whitaker and T. Marzetti Company’s Charlotte Wines.
The media dinner featured a tasting of Jack Daniel’s expressions hosted by Jeff Arnett, one of the most gifted emcees in the business. Arnett is so persuasive that you almost feel guilty drinking Bourbon. Like a veteran evangelist, Arnett led all-even the
unbelievers-to his version of the promised land: It’s in Lynchburg where dinner is equal portions of barbecue and Jack Daniel’s Old. No. 7 Tennessee Whiskey.
Jack Daniel’s neighbor Bell Buckle sits about halfway between Chattanooga and Nashville. The Bell Buckle Café is a renowned country restaurant that attracts diners with good local food and the ambience of the rural South plus a big helping of warm hospitality. Local resident Maggie Vaughn, the poet laureate of Tennessee is a café regular and the area is home to many of country music’s biggest stars. Add in the spectacular live music during dinner and you have an introduction to the Tennessee experience.
The menu is classic country cooking. Many farms dot the surrounding countryside almost guaranteeing abundant seasonal fresh vegetables and fruits. Meats include Tennessee staples like country ham along with free-range beef and pork. Chicken is local. Tennessee’s Grainger tomatoes, the Volunteer State’s counterpart in quality and taste to Georgia’s Vidalia onion. are staples.
A chalkboard menu greets diners, displaying daily specials and old standbys like pulled pork barbecue, beef short ribs and legendary fried chicken. If there is one entrée that jumps off the menu, it is the smothered, smoked pork chop: Fork tender, covered in gravy and loaded with flavor that comes from locally sourced farm products prepared by Bell Buckle’s self-taught cooks. Fried cornbread (often called Johnny Cakes) is served along with sides like spicy green beans and fried okra. Desserts, all made in the kitchen, include an original interpretation of bread pudding in a Tennessee whiskey sauce or an unforgettable oatmeal spice cake.
A Bell Buckle Café lagniappe is live music by outstanding performers. Many Nashville studio musicians live in the area and on a given night, you can dine while enjoying music ranging from songs of the Beatles, Bluegrass standards or interpretations of Miles Davis classics by an impressive jazz group. Saturday afternoons feature a live radio broadcast, the café’s version of Nashville’s Grand ‘Ol Opry.
While alcohol isn’t available, you may bring your favorite beverage, wine or Jack Daniel’s, with no corkage.
Tennessee’s culinary heritage embraces Jack Daniel’s, the world’s best-selling whiskey and the authentic food served at the Bell Buckle Café. Accommodations are primarily bed and breakfast and few equal Parish Patch Farm & Inn in Normandy. Owner David Hazelwood, a top Tennessee gourmet, will cheerfully direct you to some amazing adventures in food and drink.