On the wall of Allan Benton’s Smoky Mountain Country Hams shop in Madisonville, Tennessee, is a photograph of a tumbledown Appalachian wood shack. When his customers ask, Benton explains that it is his grandparents’ home in Scott Co., rural south western Virginia, where Benton was born and raised in the 1950s. It might as well have been the 1850s. They had no electricity, no car, and when they traveled they went by horse drawn cart. Still, they didn’t have much need to travel.
“It was idyllic,” Benton beams. “We ate what we grew or raised: chickens, eggs, fruit, nuts – and of course hogs. We would let those pigs loose in the forest, and every Thanksgiving we would slaughter them. Next to the shack was a log cabin smokehouse and my grandparents would hang the hams in there.”
Fast forward 60 years. Benton’s grandparents have long since passed away and that wood shack burned to the ground. But that old Appalachian taste – and way of life – lives on in his shop, a nondescript brick smokehouse on Highway 411, in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains.
It's here that Benton, one of the most celebrated pork purveyors in the country, cures, smokes and dry ages the country hams, prosciutto and hickory bacon sought after by Michelin Star chefs and white-tablecloth restaurants from New York to Charleston.
Dubbed the Pork Whisperer and the Bacon Baron, feted at food fairs and festivals, Benton gets so many orders for his meats that a notice on his website apologizes for four-week shipping delays. Perhaps most remarkable, Benton says he owes it all to that hillbilly up-bringing – and his grandparents’ ancient recipe for smoked hog.
“I’m using the exact same Appalachian hillbilly method my forebears used in that old log smokehouse right next to where I was born. This was cheap subsistence food back then – now it’s gourmet! Who would ever believe that?”
Still, it took Benton, now 65, a while to get the recipe right. He left the Appalachians and moved with his parents to Tennessee when he was ten years old, later studying to become a school teacher. When teaching didn’t pan out, he rented a block building on a dairy farm in Madisonville, where dairy farmer Albert H. Hicks had started curing and selling country hams. Benton turned to his grandparents’ method: slow-cured hams dosed with salt, brown sugar, and black and red pepper, aged for up to two years. The business took off, and in 1973 he bought the company outright.
And yet, up until the early 1990s, Benton never felt his product was ever as good as what his grandparents made. “There was something missing - I was just never sure what.”
Then, an epiphany: after a conversation with the food writer, Peter Kaminsky, Benton learned that the pigs from which the famous Spanish delicacy, Jamón Ibérico, come from, are raised in oak forests, on a diet of pasture and acorns.
“I suddenly recalled how my grandparents pigs ran wild in the forest.
There were acorns in the forest. I knew then that the quality of meat I was using had to be better.”
Ever since Benton has only used pasture-raised pigs, and always old heritage breeds. The result was extraordinary: soon restaurants and celebrity chefs were calling him for orders. Today superstar New York chef David Chang of Momofuku fame is a devotee of Benton’s products (and has cooked for him); as has Sean Brock, at the famous McCrady’s in Charleston, SC.
It is in keeping with Benton’s down home, backwoods manner, that for many years he had no idea what these chefs were doing with his product – and why they loved it so much. That all changed when he was invited to dinner one evening by John Fleer, then-chef at Blackberry Farm, the luxury Relais & Chateau property in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee.
Benton grins. “I had never eaten in a white tablecloth restaurant before. John told me to wear a jacket – no tie. That was lucky – I didn’t own a tie.”
When the first course arrived – a single shrimp – Benton whispered to his wife they should have gone out for a hamburger. “I thought that was the whole meal!”
It turned out to be an eight course feast – and that shrimp was wrapped in Benton’s prosciutto. He was amazed. “I had only ever had it on a biscuit before – it was spectacular.” Fleer served him Benton’s smoked bacon with sturgeon, and aged ham with a line fish. Much to his wife’s amusement, overnight he became a committed foodie. Now, wherever they travel he marks out restaurants to dine in.
And it turns out there’s no shortage of original ways culinary experts are using his product. He has eaten cotton candy flavored with his bacon, and proudly mentions that PDT, a hip cocktail bar in New York, makes a Benton’s Old Fashion – fusing his bacon with bourbon. Benton grins. “They change their menu in that bar a lot – but they never take off my drink!”
His smokehouse on Highway 411, meanwhile, remains as old school as his roots. A sign outside reads simply: “We cure em” and the scent of hickory smoked meat throughout the shop makes the place smell like a campfire. The wood for the smokehouse is all hand chopped, and apart from the freezing system, nothing is electrical or mechanical. In short, it’s pretty much the way his grandparents used to do it in the old days.
Benton looks at the photograph of the wood shack on the wall and grins again. “You know that TV show The Waltons? They grew up in a city compared to where I’m from.”
Benton’s Smoky Mountain Country Hams is located at 2603 Highway 411 Madisonville, Tenn.