My trip this past weekend took me to Knoxville, Tennessee. Kelly and I drove up there to surprise my father for Father’s Day. While up there I decided that I could not pass up the chance to visit Benton’s Smoky Mountain Country Hams. I used to pass by their building on highway 411 on a regular basis on my way out to go trout fishing. Foolishly, my fishing partner and I used to pass it up for lunch, instead choosing the A&W drive in just down the road. While also a true piece of Americana, the drive in is nothing compared to Benton’s.
Monday was the day of my scheduled visit and the anticipation of the trip was enough to get me out of bed earlier than normal. I wanted to arrive before everyone else and be able to see the whole operation. Out in Madisonville, Tennessee Benton’s store is located in what is commonly referred to as God’s country. I would have to agree with this as the drive was one of the most beautiful, quiet, and peaceful drives I have had in a long time. The rolling hills and untouched country side makes me miss living there. And if you agree that this is God’s country then Allan Benton (the owner) must be an angel that allows all of his followers a small taste of heaven in his hams, and this was definitely my pilgrimage.
The company has been in operation since 1947 with Allan taking over in the in 1973. Still a small operation, a “Hillbilly” operation according to Allan, with five employees plus Allan, they crank out hundreds of hams a month. Sourcing several different breeds Allan uses nothing but the best, including certified organic Berkshire hogs like the ones served in the best fine dining restaurants. You will never find a ham that came from a pig raised in a stock house like those of other ham makers. Being a small business owner himself (though growing) Allan likes to help support small farmers as much as possible.
As you arrive at the store you cannot believe that something so good comes from something so small. Simplicity in mind and practice, Benton’s store front is nothing that would stand out, but certainly something you should always remember. Once inside you are quickly taken back in time to when Allan first started in the business. In fact the only thing Allan has changed was the type of sugar used, the original company used white sugar, and since his family had always used brown sugar instead of white Allan decided to go with that. The smell is that of an old farm house where food is always cooking and being served. Smoke stained racks hold hundreds of smoked pork bellies, hams, jowls, and sausages all tagged with a starting date and name if the ham or bacon has been custom made for someone. In the next room employees (one or two of the five) are cutting hams or bacon for packaging. Then you go in back and the fun really begins. The other three or four employees are constantly moving hams from the curing room to the aging room or smoke house, from the aging room to the cutting and packaging room, or from the smoke house to the center of the room allowing them to cool off before they go back into the aging room where they gently give off the aroma of ham heaven. Pork is everywhere in every state of curing, different sizes, cuts, and all looking wonderful. For a pork fan like me this was an amazing site and I honestly did not want to leave. At this time had Allan offered me a job I probably would have taken it, and I hadn’t even seen the smokehouse.
Just off the main structure is the smoke house. Inside the doors is where perfection in flavor is started. Years of use have left the walls and ceiling completely covered in black. I can only imagine that this leads to added flavor as a cask aging balsamic vinegar does. I was told that balsamic makers don’t simply build new barrels to age their vinegar; they actually build a new barrel around the existing barrel in use. This practice has been done forever as far as I know allowing each batch of vinegar to benefit from every previous batch (now days this can mean hundreds of years of vinegar production and flavor). As each batch of ham, bacon, or sausage is smoked in Benton’s smoke house, flavor is added not only from the hickory and apple wood being burned for their wonderful smoke but also from the years and years of smoking that came before. This type of age flavor cannot be replicated in any way that I know of and is undoubtedly an intricate part of what makes Benton’s hams so beautiful.
As I toured the small building, being guided along by Allan or one of his employees, I realized that everyone there shared a passion for pork. Everyone employed at Benton’s not only loves hams and bacon and sausage, but they love working there. You can see it in their motions, you can feel it in the smile on their face, and you can hear it when they invite you to come see the smoke house or even help them hang a rack of pork belly. Everyone I talked to (I know it was only five) all had an attitude that is rarely seen at a place of employment. This, in my opinion, helps create the flavor and experience of Benton’s products. When people love what they do and where they work they produce better end results. When employees want to come to work, instead of having to go to work, the customer can experience their happiness. Whether it is in a restaurant, bank, or any other service based business, happy employees’ lead to better business.
So after the tour Allan graciously loaded me up with more samples than I knew what to do with. I had planned on purchasing several items to try out for the new menu. Instead he and I talked through some ideas and Allan decided on what I needed to take home to try. I have to mention that I tried numerous times to purchase too much. Each time Allan quietly said, “let’s try this and see what you think first, then we can move forward”. Allan Benton is a true gentleman. He focuses on the greater good for both involved not just on the sale. He is the type of person you want to be associated with, and do business with because you can trust him and you know that in the end both of you will be happy. Allan is honest and passionate, hard working and dedicated to keeping his business pure, doing only what he believes is the right thing to do.
Returning home I had so many ideas it was hard to think, and the peaceful drive I experienced going out there passed much too quickly returning. Allan had given me a sample of his regular country ham, Berkshire country ham, prosciutto, fresh sausage, and smoked bacon. My first thought was on lunch. I had left the house early without breakfast and then had to endure so much time smelling all those wonderful scents that I was starving. Carrying on a Kentucky tradition (I know I was in Tennessee, but my family is from Kentucky) I decided to serve Benedictine, bacon, and tomato sandwiches. Slowly cooking the bacon, as I know you should, only prolonged the hunger. I have found though, the best part of being the chef is you get to “taste” what you are cooking as you cook it. I mean you want to make sure the flavors are perfect don’t you? With the toast made, the heirloom tomatoes sliced, and the bacon crisp it was time to try Allan Benton’s bacon for the first time. It was actually like trying bacon itself for the first time. The flavor and crispiness were better than any other bacon I had ever eaten, and I promise you I have eaten a lot of it. The smokiness was perfect, enough to enjoy without over powering everything else. The cure on the bacon created a saltiness that perfectly seasoned everything else on the sandwich with no additional seasoning needed, yet at the same time you could eat the bacon on its own and it was not too salty; just another example of Allan and his quest for perfection.
That night I had already planned a party that involved a Mexican style pork butt that I cooked after reading the book “Pig Perfect” by Peter Kaminsky. The funny thing is Allan Benton had not only read the book twice, from cover to cover as he told me, he had also sat on a board of review in New York City with Mr. Kaminsky about pork. I did though, throw in a starter of Benton’s prosciutto and melon with dressed baby arugula so that all of those who attended could experience a little of what I did that morning. The next morning was a perfect opportunity to show case Allan’s fresh country sausage. Outstanding in all aspects is all I can say. I spent many a summers on my grandfather’s farm, and this is the only way I can describe it. For all of those who have seen the Oscar winning Pixar movie “Ratatouille” you will remember when the evil food critic Anton Ego is taken back to his childhood days after the first bite of ratatouille. I had the same experience here. I, of course, had to smell the sausage before cooking. My first reaction, which was backed up by my mother, was it smelled of my grandfather’s farm house. After cooking I was certain this was true. What I was not expecting was my first bite; instant time travel back to my grandfather’s table eating a breakfast that consisted of sausage, bacon, two eggs (over easy), toast, and coffee every morning after going out to count the cows. I sat for a second after the first bite simply enjoying the memory, one I had not had in many years, one that made me truly want to be on the farm again.
Allan Benton and his Smoky Mountain Country Hams are something I truly believe all should experience. His hard work and experience you can expect to find showcased at Red Sky. I will undoubtedly serve his prosciutto as a starter just as I did at the dinner party. And at the very least serve his smoked hams at brunch for all to savor. Red Sky fortunately has many followers (which I hope we keep) from all walks of life and all parts of the globe. My only hope in serving this tremendous product is that I as a chef can do it justice in all of its perfection.