I watch cooking shows while I walk on my treadmill. While that may seem odd to you, it works for me. Recently, I have heard the same phrase uttered by several chefs, “Benton’s Bacon, Benton’s Bacon, Benton’s Bacon.” It started with Vivian Howard, chef and owner at Chef and the Farmer in Kinston, NC, and since her PBS program showcases her desire to source locally, I thought that Benton’s Bacon must be a product of North Carolina. That idea changed a bit when I heard David Chang of Momofuko Noodle Bar in New York describe how he makes his broth for ramen. As he listed the ingredients, I heard, “Benton’s Bacon.” A bit more research uncovered that Chang was in the restaurant of his former employer when he smelled bacon being fried and went a bit food crazy. Upon learning that it was Benton’s Bacon, he immediately called the owner and put in an order. Bacon for ramen broth? My curiosity was piqued.
What was the big deal? When did bacon evolve from being a breakfast meat to being highlighted on restaurant menus as a key ingredient? Isn’t bacon just bacon? I am not sure that I have ever had bad tasting bacon. I have had bacon that was overcooked or undercooked but goodness, bacon is bacon. What elevates it to rockstar status? Further research uncovered a few stories on Benton’s Bacon and once I saw its location, I knew I would shortly have to visit. I was heading on a road trip to Knoxville to visit family and guess what? Benton’s is located only 30 minutes down the road.
I arrived at a very unassuming building around 9:30 am and came across a big dog dozing by the front door. I entered the small shop and my first thought was that this was going to be a very different experience. For one thing, the storefront was very small. Second, the few workers that I saw all seemed to be multitasking: waiting on customers, answering the phones, hauling huge hams. Let’s also not forget the smell — sweet, smoky, hearty — I was getting hungry.
“Ma’am, I see you have a camera. If you want to just walk around and take a look, go right ahead,” one of the workers called out to me as he waited on a customer. “Really,” I thought. “They will just let me, a perfect stranger, walk around by myself?” I wandered into a large, cool room that contained racks and racks of hams — more hams than I had ever seen in one location. My “tour guide” arrived and introduced himself. “Yes, we were expecting you. I am sorry that Allen could not be here today. I can give you a tour of our facility and answer any questions that you may have.” Tommy Bateman, who works with the owner, Allen Benton, started guiding me through the facility.
Since 1973, Allen Benton has been making smoked and unsmoked hams and bacon in his relatively small facility outside of Knoxville, Tennessee. His initial customers were area restaurants who wanted country ham for their breakfast menus. That evolved into selling hams from his car to the local community or passing tourists. For 25 years, he made no profit but he believed in his product. Now that resolve has paid off abundantly.
So, what is the big deal? Over the course of my visit, I began to realize that there are several reasons for his success. First and foremost, Allen is replicating a process that was in his family for generations. I learned that each November, his family would slaughter a hog and work quickly to preserve it, as there was no refrigeration. Today, his hams “visit” various rooms, which mimic the temperature and perhaps the season of the year when his family was processing hogs. It is fascinating and really, quite logical. The cure he uses today is the same cure his family used: salt, brown sugar, red and black pepper. Naturally, the smokehouse is a simple affair, fueled only by hickory wood.
The second reason for his success is that it is a very personalized process. You see very little mechanical equipment throughout the facility. These hams are handled by people, personally covered in salt, personally cured, and personally checked daily. The process is not rushed. Allen believes in making a quality product rather than a product of great quantity. As a result, during holiday seasons, it is not unheard of for them to just run out of hams.
Finally, a bit of luck has played into the mix. Chef John Fleer came to nearby Blackberry Farm with a passion for locally sourced products. In his search, he found Benton and began purchasing his ham and bacon for the restaurant. As Blackberry Farm gained in national prominence, celebrity chefs from all over the country visited the restaurant and left knowing all about Benton. Of course, David Chang’s enthusiastic endorsements both in his restaurants and on television helped raise awareness for this truly artisanal product. Read any recipe by David Chang or watch him cook anything that requires a certain smokiness and you know automatically that he is using a Benton product.
Have there been many changes based on the recognition? There has been some expansion but not much. Over the past ten years, the number of employers has increased from 7 to 18. The facility has also expanded and become more functional. Yet, the process remains the same. They may get a phone call from Momofuko asking for three hams or they may get a call from the guy down the street asking them to cure one of his hogs. The small storefront doesn’t just sell Benton products. “We have locals coming in here to get their weekly bologna and cheese. We are not going to change that,” explains Tommy. If you slaughter your own hog, just bring it to Benton’s and they will smoke it for you. They may have a national reputation but no one here forgets the locals. Tommy explains all of this with incredible sincerity and genuine respect for Allen. He is an excellent spokesman and a very nice guy. As we approach the smokehouse, he stops and asks me to step back a few steps. “Watch when I open the door and the smoke flows up through the door. It makes for a really cool picture,” he explains. Quickly he adds, “If you don’t mind me giving you a recommendation.” He is right; it is a cool picture.
Let’s not forget one important part — how does it taste? Simply phenomenal. “Don’t overcook it,” Tommy explains to me just before I leave. The flavor is not subtle; it is smoky and salty, it is intense yet pleasing. Ok, Mr. Chang, I get it. The prosciutto rivals the best Italian prosciutto I have ever had. I leave with surprise gifts, several packages of smoked bacon and prosciutto. I cannot pass up the opportunity to buy the house-made sausage, made once a week with the same old family recipe and only sold at the store. I couldn’t resist several more packages of bacon and more prosciutto for those impromptu picnics. Later in the day as I walked down a Knoxville street, I realized that I smelled like bacon. And I liked it.
Benton’s Smoky Mountain Country Hams
2603 US-411, Madisonville, TN 37354
423-443-5003 • www.bentonscountryhams2.com