Benton's bacon stars as an American artisanal good

"What I make here is sustenance food for poor hillbillies," Allan Benton says.
"What I make here is sustenance food for poor hillbillies," Allan Benton says. (CRAIG LaBAN / Staff)
Posted: September 13, 2013

NORTH MADISONVILLE, Tenn. - There was a collective gasp in Bacon America in May when some hot coals left in kindling ignited a fire in the smokehouse of Benton's Smoky Mountain Country Hams, located an hour south of Knoxville.

Chefs and the national press fretted. Concerned calls from across the country jammed proprietor Allan Benton's phone lines. One of his competitors and colleagues in country ham, Sam Edwards of Edwards & Sons in Surry, Va., finally just wrote him a letter, asking how he could help, even offering to smoke some of Benton's meat.

"I have to tell you, I was overwhelmed by the graciousness of so many people who offered to help," said Benton, clearly touched by the concern.

The fire proved only a small setback, adding a few extra weeks (currently five-plus) to the usual delay for ham and bacon orders that typically mark Benton's catch-up summers. Devotees of Benton's intensely smoked pork - many of them famous chefs such as David Chang and Tom Colicchio - are willing to wait. But the level of concern emphasized both how far Benton's star has risen from humble beginnings and the newly heightened reverence many Americans now hold for traditional foods.

"Allan Benton is the rock star of American bacon," says writer John T. Edge, the director of the Southern Foodways Alliance and a regular contributor to the New York Times. "There's just something very primal about his bacon. It's assertive. It's like barbecue and is so distinctive. You know when it hits your skillet and the first waft of smoke and grease starts to spiral up."

Benton, 66, is the epitome of the humble Southern gent as he greets us in the small retail area of his cinder-block factory off U.S. Route 411. His genuine modesty ("Thank you so much for coming!") is fueled by a wonder that an old-fashioned method for making country ham, passed down from the log smokehouses of his Virginia ancestors, has brought him such acclaim.

"What I make here is sustenance food for poor hillbillies," he says - although it's made with the highest-quality breeds of heirloom pork. "And we're so small. I'm sure Oscar Mayer makes more in a day than we do in a year!"

He leads us through the warren of curing rooms: some are chilled, with raw hams caked in salt and seasoning stacked floor-to-ceiling; other rooms are warm and humid, with the heady scent of already smoked haunches and slabs of belly dangling from wooden racks in the dim yellow light.

"If people could see this pathetic hole-in-the-wall place," he says, "they'd take my name off the menus."

That's unlikely, Edge says: "Allan's bacon has become a mark of integrity on the menu. Like true balsamic from Modena, or honest Parmigiano-Reggiano. And when chefs began looking in earnest for artisanal American goods, in particular . . . they found their way to Allan, who personified artisanal goods prepared with humility."

John Fleer, previously chef at nearby Blackberry Farm in Walland, Tenn., was among the first in the culinary world to embrace Benton's pork. New York chefs like Chang (of Momofuku) and Colicchio (of Craft) helped put it on the national map. A noted ingredient now on Philadelphia menus, Benton's bacon grease is what gives the magnetic smokehouse shine to the popcorn at the Khyber Pass. At Pennsylvania 6, sheer slices of silky Benton's country ham curl like pink prosciutto (though with a smoky tang) beside a Mason jar of house-made pimento cheese. Di Bruno Bros. typically has slabs of the bacon to be sliced to order.

Such renown was hardly the likely outcome for Benton 40 years ago when he quit a teaching job and bought a smokehouse from Albert Hicks with an idea there might be a market for high-quality country ham, with old-school integrity. America's food world was in full industrialization mode, churning out hams quicker and cheaper. But Benton insisted on a traditional method, with a simple recipe of salt, brown sugar, and pepper flake, plus a slow ride in the smoker, where pork hangs for days,and then cures for another 26 months. A thick gray fog perfumed with hickory wood rolls out when he unlatches the smoker door: "If you don't shower first, people will know where you've been."

Benton was also one of the first producers to upgrade his product by focusing on more flavorful heritage breeds of grass-fed pigs, like Berkshire, Red Wattle, Large Black, and Duroc. But most local chefs early on didn't care, he said: "They just wanted it cheap. And for the first 25 years, I could barely keep the doors open."

Sticking by advice from his father and partner, B.D. Benton, Allan refused to cut corners. The chef endorsements, facilitated by the Southern Foodways Alliance, finally marked a turning point about 15 years ago. The exposure also happily coincided with a national awakening to the value of regional products. And America has, in particular, become obsessed with bacon, fueled by "bacon of the month" clubs, a backlash against austere diet fads, and the rising restaurant trend of nose-to-tail charcuterie.

"I sell more bacon now than ham," says Benton, noting that it is an inverse business model for a country ham producer, whose on-the-bone hams typically generate the most income. (Benton's sells whole 15-pound hams for $71 online, while the bacon costs $6.50 a pound.)

On a national stage, bacon has a wider audience than salty country hams, which have a devoted niche market. For some like Edge, though, the bacon-makes-everything-better craze has at times become fetishistic, whether it's bacon-infused cocktails or the now inevitable bacon-chocolate dessert, which he says has become the "flourless chocolate cake of its era."

When the novelty eventually ebbs, "I hope we'll see a retrenchment moment where Allan's bacon is appreciated simply as Allan's bacon, not stunt food."

Something unexpected like a fire in the smokehouse can be a blunt reminder to fans to appreciate an icon like Benton, whose orders, he conceded, shot through the roof once news of the fire spread. But after a quarter century of frustration, Allan Benton plans to embrace his audience with gratitude – and improved service. The fire only accelerated his plans for a modest expansion to better meet the demand of bacon faithful and reduce the waits.

"I plan to make ham and bacon until I'm 90," he says. "And I sure am glad that someone likes it."


Contact restaurant critic Craig LaBan at claban@phillynews.com or on Twitter: @CraigLaBan.

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