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A master taster weighs in on food and -- oh, right -- drink

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By ERNEST HOOPER, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published November 4, 2002


My first inclination was to envy Jack Daniel's master taster Lynne Tolley and the folks from the famed distillery in Lynchburg, Tenn.

Their job, at least on most fall Sundays, is to search for the best tailgaters in NFL cities. On Sunday, the competition brought Tolley, the great-grandniece of Jack Daniel, to Tampa for the Bucs-Vikings game.

The judging criteria is creativity, food and drink preparation and team spirit. The winner gets a trophy and, if his or her team goes to the Super Bowl, an all-expense paid trip to San Diego to watch the big game. Byproducts of the search include warm greetings, free drinks and unending offers of food.

We should be so lucky, right?

The precarious part of the job, however, came when the judges had to choose a winner. Two tailgating extravaganzas -- and I use that word with no exaggeration -- made it a difficult choice.

* * *

Given that Tolleyis related to Jack Daniel, I surmise she's royalty in Tennessee. She is a fourth-generation native of Lynchburg and the proprietor of Miss Mary Bobo's Boarding House restaurant. She is as congenial as her roots would suggest.

"There are a lot of people in Moore County, where Lynchburg is located, who have Jack Daniel's blood in them," Tolley said. "The rest just like to have Jack Daniel's in their blood."

Tolley believes Jack Daniel's tastes good with just about everything: sweet potatoes, cranberry relish, candied apples, chocolate candy, homemade ice cream, coffee and cold remedy elixir.

* * *

Needless to say, those tailgaters cooking with Jack Daniel's (or one of the many seasoning products bearing its name) had a distinct advantage in the contest. Wally Switzer's Buccaneer Brew Crew has gathered for 10 years on Himes, just south of Tampa Bay Boulevard. They draw up to 600 people each game and donate proceeds to various charities.

Last year, they were among the finalists after prepping ribs and pork with Jack Daniel's. This time they didn't get the word. Oh well, there's always next year.

* * *

St. Petersburg's Andy Knorowski had "filet of Viking" vacuum-sealed in the proper marinade. The folks from Molly Goodheads restaurant in Ozona impressed with Chilean Sea bass and salmon.

Brandon's Tim and Brenda Rau had an elaborate four-tent setup near the old mall with shrimp, T-bone steaks, baby back ribs and a satellite dish.

* * *

Yet the competition came down to defending champion Tim Young and his friends and a Sarasota contingent led by Dan Hansen and Diamond Dave Branch.

Young is a Tampa native and current Atlanta resident who drives down for every game. He started planning on how to defend his title the day after winning the trophy last year. Located just south of Raymond James, it appeared nothing was too elaborate for his setup.

He had a wood-panel replica of a ship, the Lynchburg Lady, replete with cannons that actually fired. Well, sort of. A machine blew smoke out of the cannons and a computer program recreated the booming sound.

Young served up, among other things, a 15-pound pork tenderloin cut like a canoe and filled with grilling sauce. He also had a blender driven by a gas-powered engine he converted from a lawn trimmer. Ever heard of a Jackarita?

Hansen and Branch posted their camp near the mall on Himes Saturday night. They brought 3,000 pounds of beach sand to the site about 6 p.m. and created a mini beach, with tiny palm trees.

The police tried to stop them from setting up so early, but Branch retorted, "Arrest me, do what you gotta do, but I'm going to win this competition."

* * *

Branch didn't go to jail, and his Sarasota contingent ended up winning, but not without much deliberation. It helped their menu included lamb and lobster tails, and it didn't hurt that they appeared to have consumed more Jack Daniel's than the competition.

After getting the trophy, they started partying with their lawn chairs in the middle of Himes. Martha Reeves would have been proud.

That's all I'm saying.

-- Ernest Hooper can be reached at (813) 226-3406 or Hooper@sptimes.com .

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