Southern Foodways: Allan Benton Wins Lifetime Achievement Award

Southern Foodways appears on Fridays as part of our collaboration with the Southern Foodways Alliance, an organization based in Oxford, Mississippi, that "documents and celebrates the diverse food cultures of the American South." Dig in!

20071116benton01.jpgBy way of this blog, the Southern Foodways Alliance seeks to introduce you to folks you might not otherwise ever encounter. While it's likely you won't ever meet Allan Benton in person, it is likely you'll encounter his ham or bacon in the finest restaurants across the country. Momofuku in New York City serves Benton's bacon. So does McCrady's in Charleston, South Carolina. You'll also find Benton's on your plate at The City Grocery in Oxford, Mississippi. Allan Benton's hams and bacon have been highlighted in Saveur, Gourmet, and, most recent, Southern Living.

This year, the SFA honored Allan with The Jack Daniel's Lifetime Achievement Award. This is the highest honor the SFA bestows. Past award winners include restaurateur and chef Frank Stitt; author and expert on the foodways of Appalachia, Joe Dabney; and author and historian John Egerton.

John Fleer, former chef at Blackberry Farm and SFA board member, inducted Benton as this year's Lifetime Achievement Award Winner. Following are excerpts from Fleer's remarks:

He began his life as a farm boy, informed by the traditional ways of life on his grandparents' land in Scott County, Virginia. It would be some time before the smell and the taste of the farm would inform his craft. Allan Benton began his working life as a high school guidance counselor. In 1973, he took over a ham business that Albert Hicks had started in 1947. Almost thirty-five years later, by upholding traditional techniques learned from previous generations, Allan Benton continues to produce some of the finest country ham and bacon in the country.

He has satisfied the cravings of food lovers for the magic tonic of pork, salt, smoke and time. He has linked chefs around the country to traditional foodways and inspired them to elicit flavors that Allan, himself, might never have imagined. In the face of traditional European cured hams, Allan has cured many a case of porcine envy by way of his long-cured Tennessee prosciutto.

Dry-cured country ham, created through traditional salt curing, smoking, and aging, lies at the bedrock of Southern foodways. Allan began by selling this traditional staple to his neighbors in the region, delivering from the bed of a covered pick-up. With the renaissance of Southern restaurants in the 1980's and 1990's, Allan's ham and bacon were recognized for their world-class quality. Soon, the news spread to territories beyond what the pickup could handle. It was a difficult pill to swallow for the old farm boy, but Allan acknowledged that chefs and food lovers were willing to pay as much or more to have ham and bacon shipped to them as for the products themselves.

Spend a few hours in the block building that serves as both his production facility and his store. The magical elixir of pork, smoke, salt, and pride permeates the concrete walls and floor, the brown sacks and boxes. That block building represents the life of Allan Benton.

The phone rings. It could be any of scores of devoted chefs from around the South who swear by Benton's bacon, country ham, and prosciutto. Just as likely, these days, the call could come from New York or Los Angeles, as the best chefs around the country have discovered that this craftsman is capable of rendering bellies and hams ethereal.

When you walk in the door of Benton's Country Hams or open the box of your latest shipment, you are struck with not only the magical aroma of pig and smoke, but the spirit of Allan Benton. He has devoted his life to doing a few things exceptionally well. He continues to dedicate his life to his family and his craft.

Along with his wife Sharon, Allan's other lifetime achievements are three magnificent children. All have chosen to adopt the Benton's Country Ham motto "We cure 'em," by pursuing careers in medicine. Each reflects their parents' character, humility, intelligence, and compassion.

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