For nearly 44 years, Allan Benton has been perfecting the art of curing and smoking pork at Benton’s Smoky Mountain Country Hams.
The phrase you hear Allan Benton use again and again to describe his product is “world-class.” That’s not self-aggrandizement; it’s aspirational. He uses it when talking about everything from the quality of the hogs he purchases to the excellence of his employees.
Over the years, some things have changed: he’s gotten better at making hams and smoking bacon. He’s improved his recipes and refined his technique and constantly sought out the best pork he could get his hands on. What hasn’t changed is the spirit of the place and the character of Allan Benton.
Though he had been quietly perfecting his product for 30 years and was already on the menu at Blackberry Farm, Allan Benton made his debut on fine dining’s national stage in 2003 when he was invited to the 6th annual Southern Foodways Symposium, held in Oxford, MS. That year, the theme was “The Appalachian South,” and country ham was featured. After Benton had accepted the invitation, he found out he was supposed to cook. He nearly backed out. But they settled on preparing ham and biscuits, went to the event, and had a line of foodies, including more than a few chefs, backed up at their table all night. From there, the popularity of his hams and bacon spread all over the world.
Keith Norris: Did you change the way you make or cure your product once you started becoming popular with different chefs?
Allan Benton: When I got ready to go down to the Symposium, I’d never done a country ham tasting before. The Southern Foodways Alliance—if you’re into food, there is no better. It’s an incredible crowd, the best group I’ve ever been around in my life. I was going to take 18 to 22-month stuff down there. I had three employees at the time and none of them liked the older stuff that I made.
KN: Why not?
AB: They like that young, mild stuff. I told them “well, I think this is what country ham is supposed to be, and this is what I’m going to take down there,” and they said, “you can take it but they won’t eat it.” I said, “if they don’t eat it, then they can go hungry.” My wife Sharon and I had sliced up 40-something pounds of ham into prosciutto, and we had sliced a bunch to pan-fry. All night long chefs kept coming up to me and asking me if I could sell them that product. Well, I thought about it on my drive back to Madisonville from Oxford, and thought, “I’ve been giving this stuff away all these years.”
KN: Why do you say you were giving it away?
AB: I was selling it in Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg for virtually the same price that people who cure these hams for 90 days were selling theirs. It wasn’t a business model that worked.
KN: And you changed the model after you returned?
AB: I came back and I called a team meeting of my three employees and told them were going to increase production by 500 percent. This one fellow said, “you’re going to put us out of business.” And I said, “well, we may go out of business, but we’re going to go out in style. I’m going to make it the way I think it ought to be. I think there’s a market for these fine dining restaurants, and if we can crack that, we’ll be ok.”
KN: Was this before or after you started a relationship with Blackberry Farm?
AB: I started the relationship with Blackberry Farm when they first opened that thing.
KN: You were telling me on the phone that when you first heard about Blackberry Farm in Walland, you weren’t thinking of some grand place.
AB: I knew there was nothing in Walland, and I honestly thought it was a probably single wide trailer with a porch shedded off the front of it. I thought, “It’s got to be a greasy spoon of some kind.” I’ve actually shared that thought with the Beall family, and we all get amused when we look back. They were the first restaurant to ever put our name on a menu and now restaurants all over the country do that. We’ve never asked anybody to do that. A lot of times, I’ve thought about it. I think if they knew what a hole-in-a-wall place their product was coming out of they’d probably scratch the name off of the menu. But we’ve been very fortunate that they do that.
KN: Did you start out at this location?
AB: No, when we started out, there was an old fellow over between Madisonville and Sweetwater on old Highway 68, and his name was Albert Hicks. Albert started this business almost by accident in 1947, and he was curing his product in a building behind his house. He ran that till 1973. I had been working as a guidance counselor at the old Vonore High School up the road. I enjoyed the work; I just knew I couldn’t ever make a living. I quit my job and heard this fellow had quit making country hams. I talked him into leasing me that building in his back yard, and that’s where I started, about ten miles away. I built this building in 1978 and moved over here to where we are now. If you walked through it, you’ll realize how piecemeal it is; it’s been added onto a few times.
KN: What was your background in working with pork?
AB: We always killed hogs. We rode up to my grandparent’s place in Virginia every Thanksgiving. We got up there on Wednesday nights, and we killed hogs on Thanksgiving Day. That was the traditional mountain way of doing things. We butchered the pigs and spent Thursday, Friday, and Saturday working up all that meat for both sides of the family: canning the sausage in fruit jars, putting the hams and bacon in cure, and it was country living at its best. That was the lifestyle.
KN: And that lifestyle became the basis of your business?
AB: Yes. Then I got into it. Before I put the first meat in cure, I was riding to universities all over the south, trying to learn more about what I was doing because I wanted to do it really well. I soon figured out that we had all the expertise that I needed 35 miles up the road at UT. Every time I hit a rough spot in those early years, just to be able to call one of those professors and say “this is what I’m doing, and I think I’m on the right track, am I?” To hear them say “yes, you are,” or “no, you’re not” was priceless.
KN: One of the things I’ve heard praised is the consistency of your product. Is that because you maintain the same process, employ the same people, use the same pigs?
AB: As you suspect, the answer is a combination of those. You have to start out with good pork. That’s key. But then every stage of the process has to be consistent. We have to hire employees that are committed to helping us make a world-class product. Our business works only if you hire good people. It can’t be done almost right; it has to be done exactly right, every step of the process.
KN: How does that process work for your country hams?
AB: We bring the fresh hams in and rub a mixture of salt, brown sugar, and black and red pepper on them. We salt them in curing bins, leave them about a week to ten days, and come back and work more cure into them. Then we stack them up in the curing bins and they’ll stay there close to two months. It’s part science, and it’s part art. We won’t touch them again until we take them out of cure and hang them shank down. The old timers used to say that helps them to drain well. In reality it makes no difference—except it does help shape the ham up prettier.
KN: And that’s as much a part of it as anything else?
AB: Our philosophy, in this business, is anything that can make our hams or our bacon better, no matter how expensive the process, is worth doing because quality is everything for us. We’re trying our best to make hams that are equal in quality to what our European cousins are doing.
KN: Where do we head after curing?
AB: When they come out of cure, they go into another cooler, trying to emulate mother nature. When we killed our hogs in November, it was still cold and they had until spring to get used to that temperature change and dry out. It’s a drying process, a little bit akin to how they dry tobacco after you cut it from the field. We’re letting these hams lose moisture so that when they come out of that cooler into that heated space, they’ll keep without refrigeration.
KN: At what point do we introduce the smoking process?
AB: Typically, the hams can be smoked at any point along the way after they come out of equalization. For the bacon, it’s usually the very last process. Once we have the bacon dried out, we’re going to stick it in the smoker for three days of intense smoke. You can’t even see the meat, it’s so smoky in there. If you don’t like smoke, you’re not going to like our smoked bacon.
KN: Can you outline the Benton’s Bacon process for us?
AB: We put the bacon bellies in cure for ten days stacked in a rack. We take them out, wash them, and hang them on a rack and keep them under refrigeration for ten more days. Then we age it at room temperature for ten days to dry it out good, then three days of intense smoke in the smokehouse.
KN: Have you changed this aging process as you’ve learned more over the years?
AB: When I first started, I didn’t age that many hams to 24 months, but now I have more and more chefs who like the 18 to 24-month stuff. We’re so lucky that they use it; they use it in ingenious ways.
KN: What’s the most interesting way that you’ve seen Benton’s ham or Benton’s bacon used?
AB: We’ve seen all kinds of things, like the Benton’s Old Fashioned at the little bar in New York, PDT. It’s their signature drink.
KN: And what’s your favorite way of using Benton’s bacon?
AB: After all the exotic ways I’ve seen the product used, I think most east Tennesseans can relate what I’m getting ready to tell you. One of my favorites ways to use this bacon is to get a ripe tomato in summertime and a jar of JFG Mayonnaise (lots of those Duke’s fans out there will hang me for saying that). Give me a bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwich made with smoked bacon and a ripe tomato
from the garden and that’s about
as good as it gets.
KN: How do you like your
AB: As I’ve gotten older, I can’t eat this stuff every day, so I try to, as we say in East Tennessee, save up for certain times of the year. Right now, it’s time to go to the mountains and get ramps. I’m going to take some unsmoked bacon, some country ham, and fry all that and cook the ramps in the mountains. That’s one of my favorite ways to use the product. I just had my little 5-year-old granddaughter come down yesterday and help grandpa sow a lettuce bed. I love to have the killed lettuce: the wilted lettuce and onions with the hot grease and a little vinegar and sugar in the spring of the year. For me, that’s as much of a delicacy as foie gras or caviar. It’s an incredible treat.
KN: We’ve talked about the process, but what about the pig itself and how you choose what pork to use.
AB: On a trip to New York, I got to serve on a panel with some other culinary heavyweights, one of whom wrote about an exploit of his across Europe to find the perfect ham. That was an epiphany moment for me. I had always known that my pork was not as good as what my grandparents in Virginia had made. I came back from that trip bent on finding better pork. It’s been a passion ever since.
KN: And you’ve pursued it?
AB: We got into the game very early; we started buying all of the heritage pork we could get, pasture-raised. We try to find antibiotic-free pork. Old breeds of pigs, primarily. They have a little bit more intermuscular fat and marble than the regular pork. You know, you can’t make something good if you don’t start out with something good.
KN: Do you try to source from Tennessee, or do you have to go outside the region?
AB: Unfortunately, with the demise of the meat packing houses here in the south, there are very few hogs raised in Tennessee, now. One of my best sources is a broker in, of all places, Brooklyn, NY. He put together about 500 or more small farmers scattered over two or three states in the Midwest that raise these old breeds of hogs on pasture, no antibiotics. There’s lots of farmers out there now who are trying to raise the kind of pigs we’re looking for, and finding this pork is always a challenge. Now, it’s become a greater challenge because great chefs all over the country are competing with us for that same pork we’re chasing.
[At this point, Benton allows us to sample some 24-month, thin-sliced Benton’s prosciutto.]
KN: Do you see yourself continuing to expand?
AB: You know, we’ve expanded continually ever since we’ve been in business, so I’m not sure what the answer to that is. We’ve never had a goal of making a lot of ham; we really just want to make a world-class product. I’ll tell you something that I’m proud of. I was selling to places in Chicago and New Orleans, and other places, the West Coast. But I didn’t dream there was a market in my home state. I just thought all of us hillbillies grew up eating this stuff, and honestly, when I figured out that there was a market in state, I’ve never been prouder of anything. If these folks like it, it must be good.
But you like that 24-month stuff?
KN: I LOVE that 24-month stuff.
Keith Norris is editor of Cityview.