Smokey Mountain Masterpiece
I spent a great chunk of childhood in those mountains, and some of my most pungent memories are food-related: loaves of bread pulled from the oven each morning; fifty pound bags of green coffee beans roasted to order; fresh herbs, mushrooms and berries from the property; and whole country hams hanging something heavy in our cool basement.
Grandpa Slab was a big proponent of tasting everything, and I tended to oblige. But something about these hearty southern meats were just too intense for my tender city palate. Country ham is salty and bold, not juicy and sweet; when smoked, the flavor is dense and heavy. And its preparation is relatively high-maintenance. This may well be a true American delicacy – a unique, regional culinary tradition passed down amongst generations – but its appreciation requires some acculturation.
Which is what happened. Spurred on by curiosity and nostalgia both, I revisited Country Ham cautiously over the years. A bite here and a sample there, and my mild youthful food fear slowly transformed into an unabashed appreciation. Eventually I got it – what makes this pork product so singularly satisfying – and now I actually hanker for the stuff.
Hence the return to Appalachia. In hunting down a quality, real-deal smokehouse that excels in curing distinctive ham and bacon, I happened across a veritable Temple of Country Pork. They are located on Highway 411 in Madisonville, Tennessee, and go by the name of Benton’s Smoky Mountain Country Hams.
Benton's has been a family company for about as long as owner Allan Benton has been alive, but he didn't get the ball rolling. Said honor belongs to Albert Hicks, who set up shop in 1947 in his backyard. It wasn't until 1973 that Allan – then a high school guidance counselor – convinced Hicks to sell the small operation, changed its name, and took over production. As he recalls, it was (and I quote) “a horrible career choice.”
Which isn't to suggest that Allan was a babe in the mountain woods. After all, his family hails from prime Country Ham Territory (southern Appalachia), and he was raised to rear his own pork and cure his own meats. But doing this sort of thing for a living presented new challenges, financial and otherwise. Tough times notwithstanding, Allan never abandoned ship. Far from it. He continued to refine his art by reaching out to folks in food science and agriculture at the Universities of Tennessee, Alabama, Kentucky and Mississippi, applying advanced curing techniques to generations-old family recipes. And it is these two qualities – strong respect for tradition coupled with a progressive pursuit of excellence – that characterize Benton's to this day. The results, good reader, are something to savor.
Let's start with the country ham ($6.50/lb). We prepared big slices in two different styles: dry-fried, and warmed in a traditional mix of coffee and brown sugar. The sugar/coffee sauce certainly absorbs some of the salt in cooking, which may help the uninitiated ease into things. But we preferred the simple pleasures of an unadulterated ham slab. Try one with farm fresh eggs and homemade biscuits (above), or dice a bit into soups, stews and sauces. Extreme saltiness notwithstanding, the meat is far more versatile than you might think. Approach it with a mix of creativity, can-do frontier spirit and zest for flavor, and you wont be disappointed.
But if you're still feeling shy, consider Benton's American Prosciutto – a thin-sliced 14-18 month aged rendition of their flagship pork leg – as an alternative. Allan said he wanted something that could stand up to its European cousin from Parma, and I support the spirit. But for us the appeal of this meat lies in its difference, its dry-cured saltiness and dense silky texture. Which isn't to say that you can't enjoy Benton's prosciutto with ripe tomatoes and fresh mozzarella. (The meat paired well with a milky cheese and acidic nightshade.) Just don't go in expecting a whiff of Italy; it is best appreciated on it's own terms, and as a different avenue by which to explore the pungent flavors unique to this fine Appalachian product.
Of the three items Benton's offers the final is an undisputed classic: smoked country bacon. I know what you're thinking, friend... bacon always tastes good. And of course you are right. But this bacon tastes better. The recipe (salt, brown sugar, red and black pepper) is straightforward; the smoke comes from a blend of local hickory and apple woods; the meat is high-quality (mostly Berkshire hogs); and the dry curing is slow and low.
Simplicity of ingredients notwithstanding, the end results are downright sublime. Benton's sells only one variety (thick cut), and packages come about ten slices to the pound. You will smell some serious smoke before you even open the envelope. Throw a few slices into a hot pan and wait for the soothing aroma of whole hickory logs to fill your kitchen. Keep it on low flame and watch the fat burn a nice, clear country creek. Just make sure to pull it before overcooking, to ensure a toothsome texture and flavor maximizing meat-to-fat ratio.
As for the taste... oh, what a taste. Bold, smokey, lively. The hickory and apple woods hit first, followed by sweetness and salt. The seasoning dances with every bite, and remains surprisingly balanced for a meat with such aggressive flavors. Mr. Benton insists that “it’s not for everyone,” but with all due respect I strongly disagree. Maybe not vegans. Or infants. But for the rest of us – lovers of bacon and goodness alike – this stuff is the real (delicious) deal.
It is so unique and tasty that we polished off about half a pound straight from the stove. The other half went to a BLT. Or rather, a BBLT. Benton's bacon raised this classic sandwich to new levels, creating a perfect ménage à trois with ripe tangy tomatoes and buttery lettuce. I was worried that the meat might overwhelm, but it actually heightened the complimentary flavors. Ms. Slab called it “without a doubt” the best bacon sandwich she’s eaten, but you shouldn't just take her word. At the truly irresistible price of $5.25 per pound, this begs for a home trial.
You should also know that in purchasing Benton's terrific products you are supporting a class act. Allan is a truly humble guy, a southern gentleman (I counted half a dozen “thank you, y'all come back's” during our first interview) who hasn't let his relatively recent pork fame go to his head. Long before chefs like David Chang (Momofuku), Damon Wise (Craft) and Tennessee's own John Fleer (Blackberry Farm) got wind of (and started purchasing a good deal of) his meats, he struggled to keep afloat. And he has not forgotten these tough times. To this day he remains grounded and confident, yet deeply loyal to the chefs who have raised his profile and genuinely appreciative of its enthusiastic reception.
That said, in talking to the man you get the sense that Allan is who he is, regardless of circumstances; that he would approach his art with the same passion and pursuit of excellence no matter who was watching or, for that matter, buying. Yes, good reader, the secret ingredient at Benton's is love – the love of exceptionally cured pork products. And the results are something worth supporting: a Smoky Mountain Masterpiece thru and thru.
Benton's Smoky Mountain Country Hams
2603 Hwy. 411
A few parting bites...
● Benton's is a small operation. They produce about 14,000 hams and 17,000 pork bellies a year. Allan has only five fulltime employees, and turnover is low. It takes about a year to train someone, which speaks to the difficulty of making fine hams: proportion and technique are skills that come only with experience.
● Allan claims that he is “probably making this [meat] no better than my grandparents before me,” who “lived in the depths of Southern Appalachian poverty” and took a lot of pride in their smoking and curing. Bacon and ham were the source of, and I quote, “bragging rights in those mountains.”
● When asked to comment on what makes Benton's so good David Chang cut to the chase: “It’s smoky dericiousness!” [sic] And that just about says it all.