September 22, 2011

An Impromptu Interview with Allan Benton

benton's sign

So yesterday I promised to share a little bit more about Mr. Allan Benton, proprietor of Benton’s Smoky Mt. Country Hams. Maybe you haven’t heard of him, but if this is the case you might be in the ever-decreasing minority. Several years ago, Gourmet Magazine’s John T. Edge wrote a feature on Mr. Benton and spent some time with him in New York visiting with chefs who were using his products. At that time the concept of scallops in a Benton’s ham consommĂ© might have been a novel one, but now you’d be hard-pressed to find a chef who isn’t familiar with Benton’s cured offerings and/or using them in his or her creations.

benton's ham selection

Events like Bacon Fest probably wouldn’t even take place if it weren’t for him. But you won’t be able to convince him of this. Alright, I guess I’m getting ahead of myself. While the southern beau and I were stuffing our faces Saturday evening, I noticed someone had taken the seat beside me. Imagine my shock to turn around and see Mr. Allan Benton. I’m sure my eyes were as big as saucers as I turned back to the beau and mouthed (as inconspicuously as I could muster) “OH MY GOSH…THAT’S HIM.” Subtle, huh?

Over the next hour or so, Mr. Benton chatted with us and graciously answered my questions. He told me about how he had started out to be a school teacher, quitting when he realized he would have been teaching in the 2nd-lowest paid county in the lowest paid state. He said he starting curing meat as something to do in the meantime “until he figured out what he wanted to be.” He said he still hasn’t figured this out. We talked about how pork, which once was simply a sustenance food, is now considered such a delicacy and how he owes his success to the creativity of others…like the chefs who fed us at Bacon Fest, folks who are always coming up with new ways to enjoy pork.

He spoke of how people today don’t really know how to butcher, a complaint I heard my grandfather, a long-time Kroger butcher, make in the years before he retired. When I asked Mr. Benton if he ate bacon every day, he said that while he could eat some variation of pork every day, he mainly lived on cheddar cheese and peanut butter (a man after my own heart). He (wisely) told us his wife is the world’s best bacon cook and that the secret to good bacon isn’t really in the kind of skillet you use, but instead that you “play with it a little bit” while cooking. We conversed about gravy (red eye vs. sausage), kill’t lettuce (something we both love), and his facility in Madisonville, Tennessee (a place he assured us we’d find underwhelming).


The whole experience was such a treat and I left the event on cloud nine. Some people might feel this way after meeting a movie star or television personality…I guess that’s how I’m different from some people. I’m making plans to visit Benton’s, hopefully during a time when Mr. Benton will be around. He said he only spends about 75 hours a week there. But they say if you choose a career you love, you’ll never work a day in your life. Maybe that’s why Allan Benton doesn’t think he’s found his career path yet…making bacon just comes so naturally for him it doesn’t feel like a job.

When I first visited Europe about 10 years ago, I would try to tell the people I met where I was from. Only when I’d say “Jack Daniels” would Tennessee have a sticking point with them. I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before saying “Benton’s bacon” will put me on the map.

{Image 1 & 2 via flickr}