On a cold, sunny afternoon just after Christmas, I set off from my mother-in-law's house in Cleveland, Tennessee, in search of America's best bacon. And I found it, too.
It was about a half-hour drive up I-75 to the Highway 68 exit, where I turned east through a town called Sweetwater and passed not one, not two, but three barbecue joints. That was a good sign.
At Madisonville I headed north up US 411 and came across something straight out of the past: a fully-operational old-school A&W Root Beer drive-in. These days, with A&Ws sharing plastic-and-neon buildings with Long John Silver's, it's hard to remember that it was one of the country's pioneering drive-in chains. And there one was, in all its orange glory, car stalls and all. This was another very good sign.
Benton's Smoky Mountain Country Hams was about five miles further up the road, on the right hand side, in a very unassuming-looking cinder-block building. Its sides were painted green and tan with the motto 'We Cure 'em" painted on the side. The inside was equally unassuming, a plain front room with a Coke machine and an old glass-fronted deli case with an assortment of regular old processed meats and cheeses inside. It had all the hallmarks of a low-rent country convenience store except for one thing: the smell.
Or, maybe aroma is a better word. It was the richest, thickest, deepest hickory smoke scent I have ever smelled. I've eaten at quite a few barbecue joints in my time and smelled an awful lot of hickory smoke, but nothing could compare to this.
Through a doorway to the back I could see a large room filled with six-foot high wooden racks draped with hams and whole slabs of bacon, hanging right out in the room-temperature air. I waited for a few minutes while the counter man finished filling the order for the guy in front of me, a huge, round man in a grey work shirt with his name stiched over the pocket. He was picking up what looked to be several hams worth of meat, and Allan Benton was in the back slicing it all up with a large butcher's band saw.
Benton bears more than a passing resemblance to Mr. Rogers, a genial man with a pleasant smile and a gently-aged face who looks very much like the high school guidance counselor he was before he quit the education field in 1973 and took over the country ham business from Albert Hicks, who had founded it in 1947.
In what is clearly now a theme in my life, Benton was out of the product that interested me most, his American-made prosciutto. Conceived when, after eating some imported Italian prosciutto, Benton figured that his country hams sliced thin would be as good if not better, Benton's domestic prosciutto has gained rave reviews. When I asked how much it was, the older gentleman at the counter (not Mr. Benton) gave me one of those quick size-ups and said, "I think we're out." I can't guarantee it, but I think Allan Benton gave me a quick once-over, too, before he said, "That's right. We're all out."
So I had to settle for a couple of pound of bacon and some country ham.
And what bacon it was. Most commercial bacon is processed in a day or less--injected with brine, flash-smoked, and packed for shipping. Benton makes his bacon the way his grandfather did. He dry-rubs the pork bellies with a mixture of salt and brown sugar and lets them rest for almost 6 weeks, switching midway through from a 38-degree cooler to a 45-degree one and finally to an aging room. Then, they spend 48 hours in a smokehouse, with the smoke generated from an old wood-burning stove. The ham and proscuitto are cured even longer, the latter for more than a year.
One of the first chefs to discover Benton's hams and bacon was John Fleer at Blackberry Farm, a resort hotel in Walland, Tennessee, who not only used it in his celebrated "Foothills Cuisine" but also promoted it to other chefs. Benton's products have now conquered a host of New York City restaurants such as Craft, Salumeria Biellese, and Bobby Flay's Bar Americain, where it makes its way into haute cuisine dishes like roasted partridge with savoy cabbage and bacon and onto tasting platters of "artisanal hams". Sean Brock uses Benton's ham and bacon right here in Charleston at McCrady's.
Benton himself is more prosaic in how he recommends one cook his bacon and ham: just fry the bacon slowly in a pan. For the ham, pour half a cup of coffee into a frying pan, stir in a little brown sugar, then steam the slices in the liquid.
And that simple, old-school simplicity is how I wanted my first taste of Benton's bacon. So, I unwrapped the pound that I had had sliced there on the old bandsaw in Madisonville, stripped off a few slices, and cooked them in a cast iron skillet.
To the eye, the end product looked pretty much like any thick-sliced bacon. To the mouth, however, it was completely unlike any bacon I'd eaten before. Upon first bite there was a very strong salty hit, then I noticed notice the chewiness of the meat. Then a warm rush of hickory smokiness that lingered and lingered while I savored the whole bite.
This is bacon that you eat as slowly as you can, chewing each bite carefully while still managing to race through the entire plate you cooked up before your wife has time to get back from her early morning run to the store and try a piece.
Benton calls his operation a "hole-in-the-wall" business, but, believe it or not, they actually have a website, where you can order all his products online. And, judging by the hundreds (if not thousands) of hams I saw hanging on the curing racks in the back, they're doing a pretty bang up business, too. And, for the time being at least, it's cheap, cheap, cheap: bacon at $4.50 a pound! This may change as word gets out, but the web site should keep me stocked with a consistent stream of bacon once the supply I brought home from the holidays gives out.
And that shouldn't be too much longer.