If you live in the South, read articles in Gourmet or Esquire or perhaps visited acclaimed restaurants from New York to Portland, chances are you have heard of Benton’s Country Ham and Bacon. It seems that every restaurant in Nashville that champions local food, uses and proudly displays Benton’s bacon on their menu. So you can imagine my delight when I heard that Benton’s was just 30 minutes away while on a fly fishing trip with my husband and friends. It didn’t take any convincing to head out for an afternoon to tour the facilities.
We pulled up to the modest building that was off a country highway and had no idea what we were in for. Chances are we would just stop in to buy some bacon and be on our way, but we were in for a real treat. As we walked in the small building we were suddenly hit in the face with a smell of hickory smoked meats that permeated even the studs of the rooms. It reminded me of one of those hole in the wall bbq joints in Memphis who’s walls were yellow from years of smoke. This was a humble country establishment. In one corner hung full hams and slabs of bacon, and in the other corner was a small office stacked with papers and an old desk where Allan Benton was sitting on the phone.
This is a place where only 11 employees work, chief among them 78 year old Arthur Atkins who has been with Benton since the beginning. There was nothing hi-tech about this operation, and in fact quite the opposite. And Allan Benton was at the forefront, running from room to room problem solving the latest demand. After about 30 minutes, he came over to meet the 4 of us (profusely apologizing) and to our surprise offering to take us on a tour himself. Allan is one of those men who is untouched by his acclaim, and doesn’t have a pretentious bone in his body. His gratitude for our presence and interest in his company was repeated again and again.
[typography font=”Covered By Your Grace” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]History:[/typography]
He walked us into the back room where all the hams were being cured, hanging from massive metal hooks on wooden racks in an open room. Again, I was shocked by the size of the building. It was small. And everything was done by hand. Allan began to tell us the whole history of his humble beginnings. He received his college degree and was planning on starting a career as a teacher, until something came knocking at this door. Back in 1947, his neighbor Allan Hicks was known for smoking meats in a little black shed behind his house. Years later Mr. Hicks was asked to produce 100 smoked hams for a buyer. He had to go to each farmer in their town to buy enough hogs to smoke these meats. After it was over, he vowed to never smoke another ham again, and retired. Enter young Allan Benton fresh out of college. In 1973, Benton decided to rent Mr. Hick’s shed from him and started to perfect his family recipe. From that day on he sealed his fate, leaving a teaching career and committed himself to make the best smoked hams that would rival cured meats from Europe.
Allan spent the next 25 years scraping by (literally), trying to overcome the fact that people’s perception of a country boy from the mountains of TN couldn’t produce notable smoked hams. That was until he was approached by Chef John Fleer of Blackberry Inn in 1991. “I had no idea what Blackberry Farm was, and thought it was a country bed and breakfast in the hills of Tennessee.” Little did he know, Blackberry Farm was a luxury hotel that cost upwards of $700 a night for a room and dinner from the 5-star restaurant. Benton credits Fleer for putting him on the map, and introducing him to the world of chefs. Up until this point, chefs were only interested in sourcing the best possible food and that meant from Europe. Cheeses from France, prosciutto from Spain – and certainly not from a hillbilly. That was until, local food began to reign as king in the culinary world.[typography font=”Covered By Your Grace” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Quality:[/typography]
From here, Allan was asked to come to New York City and showcase his country ham to a group of renowned chefs including Tom Colicchio, and David Chang. A few weeks before hand, John T. Edge of Southern Foodways Alliance called him up and asked him how he was going to prepare and serve his country ham. Allan Benton promptly replied, [quote]”You’ve got the wrong guy. I’m a hillbilly and not a chef.”[/quote] He finally agreed to show up if he was allowed to serve it the only way he ate it: fried in a cast iron skillet. “Half way into the event, all the other purveyors of country ham were sitting down because everyone was coming back into my line for seconds. At 11pm I was done serving ham, and told those chefs if they wanted anymore they would have to fry it themselves” laughed Benton.
The thing that struck me the most about Mr. Benton was his devotion to quality. After about 5 years in business he turned to his father and told his dad he thought he was going to have to start quick curing his hams because he couldn’t compete with those who were curing for 90 days and could sell them for as cheap as he can buy them. But his dad said; [quote]”Son, if you play the other man’s game you will always loose. Stay with quality, quality will always sustain.”[/quote]And from that day on, he vowed to himself not to keep up with his competitors, but to devote himself to quality. And to this day, he doesn’t just sell his meats to anyone. He makes sure his buyers are also committed to quality and value small production. [quote]”I turned down Whole Foods and Kroger because I knew I couldn’t produce the same quality. I don’t need to make six figures, just enough to live a decent life and put food on the table.”[/quote] In that building, he cures just enough hams and bacon to keep the allure of a product that is hard to acquire and well worth the effort.
I also expected his hogs to come from just about anywhere, factory raised and loaded with hormones – assuming the focus was all on the smoking. Boy was I wrong! He only gets his hogs from farmers on the East Coast who raise heritage breed hogs without any antibiotics or hormones. [quote]”You have to start with an exceptional hog, to produce exceptional ham,”[/quote] he explained. If I wasn’t sold already, this sealed the deal. The focus on a quality product from start to finish, small production, a commitment to excellence, and superior taste are the goals that are championed on a daily basis at Benton’s. Local food at its finest.
(peering into the smoker)
We were honored that Allan took the time out of his insane schedule to spend an hour with us, delicately explaining the smoking and curing process step by step. From salting the hams in a refrigerated room, to smoking them in the back of the building, to curing them for over 14 months. He also told of his plans to add another 2,000 sq ft to the building. [quote]”Not to produce more hams, but to keep up the standards of quality.”[/quote] Overall, we were in awe of a man who’s passion and dedication for smoking meats took him over 25 years to see any success. From the outside we took home 2 hams (hand selected by Mr. Benton), 6 packs of bacon and 3 lbs of his special smoked sausage that was only available at his shop. On the inside, we took home a cherished memory of an experience with a precious man full of humbled greatness. And of course new eyes and watering tongues for the best country ham and bacon in the south!