Down South: 5 Life Lessons From Country Ham King Allan Benton

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Allan Benton, king. [Photographs: Jed Portman]

"Allan Benton might be the nicest man on earth." That's what they told me at Blackberry Farm, the luxury resort just up the highway from Benton's cinderblock office in Madisonville, Tennessee. They were right; he might be. And despite his god-like reputation among chefs and ham enthusiasts the world over, he must be one of the least pretentious figures in the culinary world.

"Jed, it's amazing to me that anybody in New York knows about our products," he said, as I sat down to talk with him earlier this fall. "This is just a little hillbilly operation," he said, "I can't imagine," though I know that he can, because he has been to New York and seen what big-name chefs do with his old-fashioned country hams and hickory-smoked bacon.

Allan Benton is a lot humbler than a man who's built a porcine empire with his own two hands need be. But the story of how a former high-school guidance counselor went from side-of-the-road anonymity to international culinary superstardom, with nothing but word-of-mouth to boost him, is an unlikely one.

Nowadays, chefs and food writers are making celebrities of ginmakers and cattle farmers and small-town pitmasters all over the country. Allan Benton, though, was the Neil Armstrong of small producers. He set out to make what we'd call "heritage," or "artisan," products decades ago, at a time when very few of his contemporaries were with him and very few consumers cared. All signs pointed to a high likelihood of failure. He persevered, and today has a reputation that's the envy of his younger counterparts.

"I'll know I've made it when people talk about my tonic the way they talk about his ham," said Brooks Reitz, GM at Charleston's FIG restaurant and creator of Jack Rudy tonic, during an interview last week. "Benton's is, like, the only country ham. There are other country hams, of course, but his is the country ham."

How did Allan Benton do it? Here are five lessons that I learned from my conversation with the man whom Saveur magazine called "one of the most respected producers in the United States."

1. Look to your roots for inspiration.

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Benton's Smoky Mountain Country Hams, from the highway.

"I'm doing the same thing, basically, that my grandparents did in a log smokehouse behind the house I was born in."

Allan Benton grew up in the southwestern corner of Virginia, actually, not in Tennessee—so deep in the mountains, he says, that you had to look straight up to see daylight. When Benton was a boy in the 1950s and '60s, no one on either side of his family owned a car, truck, or tractor. They traveled on horseback and grew or raised what they ate. "We lived like people lived a hundred years ago," he told me.

Every Thanksgiving day, so long as the weather was good, the family killed hogs. And without refrigeration, they had to process the meat quickly. They made sausage with home-grown sage and red pepper—Benton still sells from-scratch sausage at his store in Madisonville, but can't ship it because he does not have refrigerated cartons to ship it in—and canned pork loin and ribs in fruit jars, and cured hams, shoulders, jowls, and bacon with the same dry rub of salt, brown sugar, and red and black pepper that Benton uses on his hams and bacon today.

By the early 1970s, though, Allan Benton was a high school guidance counselor working in one of the lowest-paying school districts in Tennessee, a state that was then second-to-last in the country for teacher pay. "School had just started," says Benton, "and they brought the salary schedule in, and showed it to me, and I thought 'I've just made a horrible career choice.'" Benton decided to apply to law school, but had to wait a year.

Around that time, he heard that local dairy farmer Albert Hicks, who'd made decent money selling country hams to tourists, had retired. Benton approached Hicks and asked to lease his old smokehouse.

"I thought, 'You know, I've got to do something for the next year, til I get accepted. Maybe I'll do this for a few months and have a good time." A few months later, Benton was having too good a time to quit. "I was focused on tweaking the process and trying to make it better," he says. "I thought, 'You know, I'm enjoying this. I probably can't do it for more than a year or two years. I'm just going to do it for as long as it lasts and not worry about it.' But as it turned out, I've been in it now most of my life."

2. Keep the product high-quality, keep the operation small.

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Allan Benton's bacon rub.

"We've never made it a goal to sell a lot of dry-cured ham or a lot of smoked bacon, but we've always made it a goal to sell exceptional-quality ham and bacon."

When Allan Benton says that, he means it. Right now, he has 11 employees. His whole operation—smokehouse, coolers, aging rooms, and all—is in a building only a little bit larger than your typical ranch house, tucked discreetly on the side of the highway with Benton's famous slogan, "We Cure 'Em," emblazoned on its side. Allan Benton comes to work at 8:30 every morning, six days a week, and will answer the phone himself if no one else gets to it first. "We're so tiny," he says. "We could probably grow the business a lot bigger, but we haven't chosen to do that. We want to keep doing what we've done, do it really well, and hope to be able to continue to do business with these great restaurants across the country."

Benton goes through 13,000 or 14,000 hams each year. Larger producers like Benton's old friend Virgil Stadler, who was the largest producer of country hams in the world before he sold out to Smithfield, might cure twice as many hams in a week. "I was over at Virgil's plant one time, and it was the most modern facility in the world," says Benton. "Everything was automated, and the only thing that human beings did was put something on a conveyor belt or take it off. The hams were salted by machine, they were re-worked by a machine, they were de-boned and sliced on a machine."

"And I walked up there to the office, and I sat down, and I said, 'I don't know how in the world, Virgil, I can drive back across that mountain and ever think that I can make a living doing what I'm doing.' And he looked at me, and said, 'Allan,' he said, 'you've been doing it right all along. I've been doing it wrong.' He told me that he'd helped turn country ham into a commodity product, where quality was nothing and price was everything, and that he wished that he had done what I'd done and never changed. He said, 'I wish I'd made it better, not more.'"

"And I thought he was just trying to make me feel better, Jed, but he called me about six months later to tell me that he had sold his plant and he was retiring. Again he said, 'Don't you ever change what you're doing.' He's still a good friend of mine. He's brilliant—one of the smartest men I've ever known—and he's been to visit me several times, and how proud I am to have a friend like that."

3. Quality sells itself, even if it takes a while.

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Benton opens the doors to his smokehouse.

"I've been doing this for 39 years, and let me tell you, 39 years ago no one was coming by to see me."

As Benton puts it, "We were a little bit like that old country-western song that Barbara Mandrell sang, country before it was cool. I can tell you, what I'm doing was not thought of as anything like a cool profession until the last few years." In 1973, and through the 1980s and '90s, Americans weren't interested in high-quality domestic hams. For three decades, Benton's Smoky Mountain Country Hams barely broke even. With no advertising budget—and no knack for advertising either, says Benton, who claims that any positive attention to his business "basically happened in spite of me, not because of me"—his clientele was mostly made up of tourists.

But he kept at it, family recipe and all, resisting the urge to cheapen his process. That's not to say that he didn't waver once or twice. "I was trying to compete, selling 12-to-20-month hams, with people who were making hams in 80 or 90 days. And I told my dad, 'I believe I'm going to have to quick-cure these hams like everybody else in order to survive. I just can't compete.' He said, 'Son, if you play the other guy's game, you always lose. Stay with what you know, make the best-quality products you know how to make, and sooner or later, quality will sustain you in this business.' I wish he had lived to see what we've done. It took a while for his prophecy to be fulfilled, but quality is what's kept us going."

4. One fan can change everything.

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Benton's bacon, bathed in hickory smoke.

"Well, I can tell you how it happened. It started with a local chef, here about forty-five minutes away."

Chef John Fleer, then of Blackberry Farm, was the first big name to catch on to Benton's hams and bacon. He came across Allan Benton while looking for high-quality local products to use in Blackberry Farm's kitchen, where Fleer helped to develop the upscale, Appalachian-inspired "foothills cuisine" for which the resort is known.

Blackberry Farm hosts visiting chefs from all over the country. Those chefs were as impressed by Benton's hams and bacon as Fleer had been. "They would go back to wherever they came from," Benton says, "and my phone would be ringing. They'd be saying, 'Can you sell me this product?'"

Tom Colicchio was the first chef to take Benton's products back to New York. David Chang, late of Colicchio's Craft, had just launched Momofuku when he smelled Benton's bacon frying on a visit to his former workplace. "They say he stopped dead in his tracks, like a bird dog on point, and asked 'What is that aroma? What am I smelling?'" says Benton.

"David told me it was love at first smell. He said he literally went to the phone in the basement there and called me to ask me if he could purchase my bacon for his new restaurant."

Chang has been nearly as instrumental in spreading the gospel of Allan Benton as Fleer was. Since he added Benton's hams and bacon to his menus, Benton and his staff have been flooded with calls from chefs and customers who have just eaten at one of Chang's restaurants and want to order Benton's products for themselves.

John Fleer also introduced Allan Benton to John T. Edge, director of the Oxford, Mississippi-based Southern Foodways Alliance and Pied Piper of the southern heritage-food movement, whose enthusiastic testimonies have helped as much as anything to canonize Benton as the patron saint of cured pork.

5. Don't overcook the product.

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Benton's famous country hams.

I walked away from Benton's Smoky Mountain Country Hams with bags full of bacon, ham, and Benton's excellent prosciutto. Some of the pork I'd purchased, and some of it Allan Benton had insisted that I take as a gift, so that I'd have something to eat while I moved into my new place in Charleston. "This ought to get him through the week," he said to a woman in line behind me, smiling. "After that, he's on his own." Allan Benton doesn't need any more good press. Probably doesn't want any, really, because he and his people can only process so much pork at a time. He's just that nice.

As I walked toward the door, Benton called something after me. I thought I'd misheard him at first. No. He repeated himself—"Please don't overcook the bacon"in the imploring way that your parents might ask you not to drive too fast, or to make sure you call home every once in while. Allan Benton's products mean a lot to him—as they should, considering the generations of family history and the thirty-nine years of labor invested in them—and he wants you to enjoy them correctly.

Benton's bacon should not be fried to a crisp. "We want people to be able to bend it without breaking it," he says. "If you cook it until it's hard, you're not going to enjoy it as much. In my house, my wife is the expert, and she says that you need to play with the bacon—you've got to be turning it and mashing it—to cook it right."

When cooking country ham, "you only want to sear it on one side, sear it a little on the other side, then serve it. You don't need to cook country ham much." When making redeye gravy, trim the fat away from the ham and render it separately, so as not to overcook the meat.

How to Order Allan Benton's Hams and Bacon

Call Benton's Smoky Mountain Country Hams at 423-442-5003 to place an order. Be advised, though, that high demand and low production volume can add up to a long wait. Benton's website warns that "orders may experience a delay of up to four weeks of or longer."

Your best bet, if you live anywhere near Madisonville, Tennessee, is to visit Benton's in person. You'll walk out ham in hand—as a man in a nearby gas station told me, "Allan makes sure that we local people can always get his stuff when we want it"—and you're more than likely to meet the man in charge, who might take the time to show you around if you're interested. Just don't call him Mr. Benton.

About the Author: Jed Portman is blogging his way to that cabin in East Tennessee, one six-pack of soda and barbecue platter at a time. Follow him on Twitter @jdportman.

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