The Old-Fashioned Business of Bacon

November 22, 2010

If you didn’t know what you were looking for, you’d probably drive right by it. For everything I’d heard about Benton’s Bacon and Country Hams, I was picturing some place a little more Cracker Barrelesque, with tourists and bacon fanatics mingling about, trying to get a glimpse of the master. But in reality, this little butcher shop and smokehouse, tucked in an unassuming cinder block building just off the road in Madisonville, Tennessee, was like stepping back in a time machine.

“My wife keeps telling me to modernize this place, but I like it just the way it is,” Allan Benton tells me as we look around, the floors rough and worn, simple framed photos of the nearby Smoky Mountains dot the walls in random places, jars of local chow chow and honey are lined up next to a painted wooden pig holding a welcome sign in its mouth. The bulletin board next to the deli case littered with faded articles about Benton’s from Gourmet, Southern Living, Saveur, is the only sign that this place might be something more than meets the eye.

In the back half of the shop, dozens of handmade wooden racks are lined with aging country hams and pork bellies, all traditionally dry-cured, dating back to the days when this type of preservation was more a matter of survival than culinary prestige. “I’m probably one of the last to grow up how I did,” Allan explains, in reference to his “hillbilly” childhood spent in the mountains of Virginia, just across the border from Tennessee. He tells me that while most people growing up in the 1950’s had some type of “modern lifestyle,” no one in his family, not his grandparents nor his parents, ever owned a motor vehicle. As a child, most of his mornings were spent milking cows, the milk kept cool in the family’s spring house since they had no other form of refrigeration.

Heritage hogs were a main source of food for his family but rather than feed them grain which was costly, these hogs spent most of their days foraging for food in the hills of Virginia, a key reason why they taste as good as they do and a standard he has maintained throughout the years. Despite the fact that Allan’s business has grown into something more than he ever thought possible for a “humble hillbilly” such as himself, his commitment to quality has never wavered. He uses only pasture-raised heritage breed hogs, Berkshire being his favorite, its fat and marble uniquely enhancing the smoky flavor.

And that smoky flavor he’s talking about, is no small thing. It is the soundtrack to Benton’s, its signature look, the thing that sets it apart from all others. Their particular blend of hickory and applewood is the first thing you smell when you step out of your car in the parking lot and when you walk through the front door, it envelopes you completely, like some sort of bacon-fueled dream. Which, after you’ve tasted Benton’s, is really the best kind of dream there is.

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