Loving the Loveless Cafe and Motel

If someone in Hollywood set out to create the perfect Southern eatery, they would conjure up the Loveless Cafe. This place used to be a mom-and-pop hotel southwest of Nashville on Highway 100 back in the days before the mom-and-pop hotel owners were named Patel.

The Loveless family shifted from the motel business to serving meals, and they gained fame as a good place out in the country to eat down home food. It didn’t hurt that country music stars were known to come there for cholesterol-heaped breakfasts, which were served all day and fit the lifestyles of people for whom wasted days and wasted nights was more than a song title.

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The operation passed out of the Loveless family in 1959 and out of family ownership entirely in 2003, and with corporate owners came increased seating and a decidedly slicker operation. Traditionalists railed that the new Loveless had lost its soul, but the place continues to pack in the paying customers. The old motel rooms have become shops, and the Loveless does a thriving mail order business.

The Loveless Cafe has four things going for it: the perfect name, a 1950s sign, a secret recipe, and a connection to the oldest signifier of good southern cooking. Let’s face it, “Loveless Motel” sounds like a country song, and the 1950s neon sign retains that retro look that restaurants such as Texas Roadhouse pay design firms big bucks to create.

The next item on the path to success is “the secret recipe.” Remember Colonel Sanders and his secret recipe of 11 herbs and spices? Works every time. The Loveless pushes their secret recipe for biscuits, mentioning the phrase three times on their history page. I think the secret is lard. Southern cooks used to use lard in biscuits and pie crusts, and contrary to what you might think, this heavy-sounding ingredient makes the lightest pastries–and biscuits.

This brings us to the final touch: Miss Carol Fay Ellison a.k.a. “The Biscuit Lady.” Miss Ellison began working at the Loveless in 1979 and is an African-American woman of no small girth. It is Miss Ellison, claims the Loveless brochure, who is the keeper of the sacred biscuit recipe and “the only one that could make the world-famous old-fashioned preserves.”

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Miss Ellison makes television appearances and seems to be the perfect ambassador of the Loveless. In doing so, she joins Aunt Jemima, Cream of Wheat’s Rastus, and Uncle Ben as symbols of Southern cooking and hospitality. It is amazing in these times of political correctness that this advertising tactic survives, but the Loveless folks– and, one hopes, Miss Ellison herself–are taking this one to the bank. More on this subject here.

So how’s the food? I had the ham biscuits, southern greens with pot liquor, and fried okra. The food was good, but not all that much different from any other country cooking restaurant in the state. The country ham was sweeter than traditional Tennessee cures, perhaps to accomodate people who don’t really know what country ham should be. And the biscuits? They were very good.

As my mother and I left, I peered into the kitchen, but saw no signs of Miss Ellison. No doubt she had given her biscuit recipe to some trusted soul, or perhaps she was making them in New York City while on another TV junket and FedExing them back home.

This blog is part of a much larger website, also entitled Tennessee Guy, that contains travel and cultural information about Tennessee. Visit it here.

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