Allan Benton is Tennessee's boss hog

Sunday, August 29, 2010 at 11:45pm
Allan-Benton.jpg
Allan Benton

If in the Garden of Eden, the serpent had wanted to make quicker business of tempting Adam and Eve, he would not have used an apple.

The serpent would have used bacon. Benton’s bacon.

You wouldn’t know that the drab cinderblock building on Highway 411 in Madisonville, Tenn. — minutes from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and about an hour south of Knoxville — belongs to Allan Benton, purveyor of some of the most sought-after bacon and hams in the country.

The 63-year-old self-described hillbilly, as humble as they come, sits behind a cluttered desk that has seen better days. Fielding phone calls from hither and yon, speaking with a soft mountain lilt as buttery as breakfast toast, you would have nary a clue that he has been featured in publications such as Gourmet, Southern Living and Esquire. His country hams and bacon have been lauded in the food section of The New York Times and even garnered multiple mentions on the HBO series Treme.

Young celebrity chef David Chang, proprietor of New York hot spots such as Momofuku Noodle Bar, Momofuku Ko and Momofuku Ssäm Bar, orders 150 pounds of Benton’s goods weekly. In Columbia, S.C., much-lauded Sean Brock, chef-owner of McCrady’s restaurant, spins cotton candy from Benton’s bacon.

“Your stuff is the ultimate old-school product. We can smell the work you put into it,” Chang once told Benton, as recounted in Gourmet. “Sometimes when you ship us a ham, we can see handprints on the box. We know that the person who packed our box trimmed our ham.”

Best thing is, you don’t have to leave Nashville to sample Benton’s goods. Many of Nashville’s top culinary spots either have it on hand or use it in their dishes. Tom Lazzaro of Lazzaroli’s Pasta in Germantown sells ravioli stuffed with Benton’s bacon, ricotta, lemon and mint. East Nashville’s Mitchell Delicatessen fries it up for sandwiches and also sells it by the pound. Fellow East Side favorite Margot Café and Bar features it on the menu. And Midtown’s Patterson House, a Prohibition-style retro speakeasy, even has a “Bacon Old Fashioned” made with Benton’s bacon and infused with Four Roses bourbon, maple syrup and coffee pecan bitters.

Lazzaro told The City Paper that because of the demand, and his love for the meats, he will be incorporating more of Benton’s products into his gourmet pasta.

The history

So how did Benton’s become bacon’s first name? Patience, perseverance and a little bit of luck.

Back in 1947, Albert H. Hicks started curing hams in Madisonville. He was a tall, slender man who always wore a hat and had an unlit cigar in his mouth, as Benton paints him. “It kind of wallowed in his mouth,” Benton said, “while he chewed on it.”

For the next 30 years or thereabouts, Hicks was simply the local guy from whom you bought your ham or bacon. Or, after you slaughtered your hogs, you took the meat to him for curing. The tradition continues today, as farmers in the region still take their hogs to Benton’s to be cured, although there certainly aren’t as many hog farmers now as there were when Harry Truman was president.

In 1973, citing his advanced age, Hicks decided it was time to shut down his operation. Then Benton came along.

At the time Benton was a high school guidance counselor, fresh out of college, with plans to become a teacher. Those plans went by the wayside, Benton recalled, when he got a look at the payment schedule and knew he couldn’t survive on an educator’s salary.

Originally from Scott County, Va., just over the state line from Kingsport, Tenn., Benton heard Hicks was shutting down, so he approached the man about renting his curing and smoking operation. Hicks agreed. And with that, Benton was in the ham business. He even inherited Hicks’ only employee, Arthur Atkins. (Atkins, by the way, turns 76 in September and is still a Benton’s employee.)

This new business venture wasn’t actually all that new to Benton. He was raised on a farm. With typical humility, he said he’s simply been doing the same as his forbears all these years.

Calling them “thoroughbred hillbillies,” Benton said his grandparents “lived a primitive lifestyle” and often didn’t have enough feed for their own hogs. His grandfather would turn the hogs loose in the mountains to fend for themselves during the lean months.

To coax the near-feral hogs to return from the wild, Benton said his granddad would go up into the hills with a bucket of corn, and soon enough the hogs would follow him back to the farm.

“They knew what the sound of corn rattling around a bucket meant,” Benton said.

But as was the case with his grandfather, Benton soon discovered that being in the ham and bacon business was a tough living. He had trouble making ends meet right out of the gate.

Benton wrote university professors all over the Southeast, explaining to them his business and asking for suggestions on how to make it work. This didn’t sit too well with Hicks.

“If you listen to them damned educated fools, you will soon be out of business,” said the no-frills man who once chastised Benton for throwing away a piece of paper that had writing on only one side.

But a bit of advice from Benton’s father, the late B.D. Benton, who passed in 1995, proved pivotal.

Early on, Benton’s financial situation was so dire he once considered “quick curing” his hams, a process that takes only 60 to 90 days but robs the customer of the flavor of a ham that has been cured longer. No, no, said his father:

“Stick to quality. … Do whatever it takes to improve the product, regardless of the cost. Quality wins every time.”

The combination of advice he received from Hicks, his father, and even from the university professors, helped kick-start Benton’s business into the success it is today. That, and a little help from Blackberry Farm.

Lap of luxury

Blackberry Farm is a 4,200-acre estate in Walland, Tenn., about an hour north of Madisonville, noted for its luxury accommodations and nationally renowned gourmet meals.

In 1991 a new chef by the name of John Fleer was hired to head the culinary staff at Blackberry Farm. Originally from North Carolina, Fleer had been a philosophy and religion major at Duke University until he discovered that his calling was in the kitchen.

When he took the reins at Blackberry Farm, Fleer told the staff he wanted to emphasize food from the region. A staffer suggested he try the ham and bacon Benton was turning out.

Fleer contacted Benton and asked to sample some product, so the pig purveyor drove an hour up the road and delivered some. Three weeks went by and Benton heard nothing. Then again, he really wasn’t waiting on anything.

One day he received a phone call. He was told it was John Fleer. Benton recalled his first reaction: “Damn, what’s wrong with it?” He worried Fleer had a problem.

Instead, Fleer simply said, “Thank you — it’s a fine product,” and hung up. Fleer called a few weeks later asking if he could put Benton’s name on the Blackberry Farm menu. Benton said at the time he guessed it was OK, but really, who ever heard of putting a pig farmer’s name on the menu of a gourmet restaurant?

It proved to be the turning point. Benton said he “owes it all to John Fleer and Blackberry Farm. Fleer single-handedly started putting my name out to other chefs, and things just started happening.”

Today, Fleer lives in Maryville but cooks from Memorial Day to Labor Day at Canyon Kitchen in Cashiers, N.C. Blackberry Farm, run by proprietor Sam Beall, still features Benton’s on its menu.

Secrets

According to Benton, there are no secrets in the pork curing business.

His hams come from Alabama, Georgia, Virginia and anywhere else he can find “heritage” hogs. Heritage hogs are old breeds raised on pasture and without antibiotics. We aren’t talking the pink-skinned creature you read about in Charlotte’s Web; these hogs can be spotted, brown, black or red. They root out their food instead of being fed from a trough.

Every week Benton will get 400 to 600 hams trucked in, and a similar amount of bacon bellies. “We want our hogs as quick as possible after slaughter,” Benton said, for quality’s sake.

The meats are smoked with a blend of hickory and applewood. About 75 percent of the blend is hickory.

From there the meats are cured: bacon for five to six weeks, and hams from 14 to 23 months.

A variation of the old Benton family recipe — a mixture of salt, brown sugar, black and red pepper — is heaped on to the hams and bacon bellies to cure. After a couple of weeks in a cooler with this mix seeping into the meat, the hams are hung in a sock to form them into the familiar shape you see at your butcher. Meanwhile, the bacon hangs from a rack. A few weeks more, and the socks are removed and the ham is in its final, but long, stretch of racking until it reaches the desired age.

“It’s like making whiskey,” Benton said. “Anybody can tweak it, but it takes time, perseverance and patience. There are no secrets.”

Randy Watson could be considered Benton’s “master distiller” and has been working for Benton for the past 12 years. Benton and Atkins showed him the craft, and now Watson is in charge of the curing process.

Sweet, salty success

Benton figures that the big commercial operators in the ham and bacon business probably produce in one week what he puts out in a year. Their quick-cured products can be found in grocery stores, while you have to go to a specialty deli to find Benton’s to use at home, or order it yourself online.

They do big business for a small operation, though. Benton reckons that his operation ships 5,000 to 6,000 pounds a week in bacon and 7,000 to 8,000 pounds of ham. Annually, that amounts to about 14,000 hams processed, and 25,000 to 30,000 bacon bellies.

For his part, though, Benton keeps it easy.

“It’s not rocket science,” he said. “Because if it was, I couldn’t do it.”