Allan Benton calls himself “an old country hillbilly just trying to make a great quality product,” but to the chefs who use his Tennessee country ham and bacon in their recipes, he’s a living legend and great guy who makes some of the best cured pork products in the nation. In fact, the Tennessee State Museum in Nashville has dedicated an exhibit to Benton for his contribution to local foodways.
Born and raised on a family farm in rural Scott County, Virginia, Benton’s family was poor. They raised everything they ate, including heritage hogs, which they cured using his grandparents’ recipe. Benton earned a master’s degree in psychology from Middle Tennessee State University and planned to work as a high school guidance counselor. But learning the profession’s low salary prospects, he decided to start a business producing cured heritage pork products using the family recipe.
Opportunity presented itself in 1973, when Benton approached Albert H. Hicks, a dairy farmer in Madisonville, Tennessee, who had been curing and selling country ham since 1947 and was nearing retirement. Hicks agreed to lease Benton space to cure his own hams. Benton turned to local universities to research whatever he could about the curing process and running a business and credits Hicks for guiding him along.
Back then, East Tennessee residents were used to buying mass-produced pork products, not heritage meats. “We struggled to keep the doors open for the first 25 years,” Benton shared. Then in 1993, opportunity and serendipity knocked by way of John Fleer, then executive chef for Blackberry Farm, a luxury inn and restaurant in Walland, Tennessee, not far from Benton’s smokehouse. Chef Fleer was creating a restaurant menu featuring contemporary southern fare using locally sourced products. When he called asking for samples, Benton had no idea who he was or how significant this call would be for the future of his business.
“Allan brought his samples over in an old blue pickup truck,” shared Fleer, who now owns Rhubarb restaurant in Asheville, North Carolina. Fleer started using Benton’s products on his menu and giving packets as thank you gifts to the many well-known guest chefs invited to cook at Blackberry Farm as part of the property’s renowned culinary program. In what has to be the ultimate “word-of-mouth” marketing coup, awareness of Benton’s pork products spread through chefs’ kitchens from New Orleans to New York.
A Family Recipe That Delivers the “Wow Factor”
Chefs say Benton’s products are unparalleled in quality. The aromas and flavors are provocative. “When I first tasted Benton’s bacon, I thought ‘Wow!’ I’d never had anything like it before. It gives a depth of flavor and smokiness that’s unmatched. It’s the smokiest bacon you’ll ever eat, and which is a perfect balance with all the fresh herbs we use on our Slab Salad,” said Chef/Owner Chris Shepard of Georgia James in Houston, Texas.
Benton’s grandparents’ rub recipe is still the same: a blend of brown sugar, salt, blackened red pepper, and a small amount of sodium nitrite. Curing takes place on-site at Benton’s Smoky Mountain Country Ham, a nondescript building off U.S. 411 between Chattanooga and Knoxville that also serves as a retail outlet.
“We only use pasture-raised, antibiotic-free heritage pork, older breeds like Red Wattle, Berkshire and Duroc, says Benton, adding “You also have to start with something good to make something good, and these breeds have more intramuscular fat similar to European pigs like Spain’s black Ibérico which delivers a more succulent flavor and texture.”
The hams are dry-cured anywhere from nine to 30 months, quietly hanging from racks in a large room to allow time to work its magic to bring out their seductive flavor. “Every product is like a barrel of whiskey that needs to be aged a certain amount of time,” said Benton in his southern drawl. Hickory smoking takes place in a small wood stove smokehouse out behind the main building.
Benton’s bacon has a smoky-salt-sweet flavor and chewy texture that appeals to many chefs who use it to accent their dishes, “In addition to its nice smoke profile, Benton’s bacon is a little thicker and chewier. It doesn’t crumble too easily. It’s the perfect addition to my Shrimp & Grits,” said Chef Chris Spear, owner of Perfect Little Bites in Washington DC. “Some country ham is too salty for my taste, but I’d put Benton’s up there with the finest European charcuterie.”
Pivoting during the pandemic
In 2020, Benton’s business nearly came to a crashing halt due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Not only were restaurants, his main customer base shut down, but so were his key suppliers, the meatpacking houses in the Midwest. Since his cured hams take more than a year to produce, Benton had to quickly refocus by selling premium beef and pork products direct to customers. Both the local foot traffic and eCommerce kept business going, and, despite the challenges, Benton retained all his employees.
With restaurants slowly opening up, Benton remains hopeful for the recovery and grateful to those chefs and restaurants who have come calling again, including Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality and David Chang’s Momofuku Restaurant Group. “I owe my success to my loyal customers, especially to all the chefs who use my products on their menus,” he said.
Photos for this article were provided by the Southern Foodways Alliance, a nonprofit organization based at the University of Mississippi’s Center for the Study of Southern Culture which documents, studies, and explores the diverse food cultures of the changing American South. For information, visit www.southernfoodways.org
Photos by Sara Wood.