Seventy-year-old Allan Benton, who owns and operates the Madisonville, Tennessee-based business about 45 minutes southeast of Knoxville, is as modest and unassuming as the call of a whip-poor-will. He describes himself as a hillbilly and his business as a little bitty hole-in-the-wall.
Others who’ve met him know better. He’s been described as everything from the King of Country Ham for his products, the High Temple of Pork for his business to the Mother Teresa of Meats for his unpretentiousness and sincerity. Indeed, one famed food writer labeled him “perhaps the nicest man on Earth.”
Accolades like that, and the moniker “Willy Wonka of meats,” don’t just drop by accident. He is the real deal.
After the former high school guidance counselor earned his master’s degree, he was given a $500 raise, but almost immediately he resigned from his position, believing that he could employ what he learned as a Virginia farm boy about curing meats to make a better income.
“Every Thanksgiving was hog butchering time,” he recounts. “We cured our hams and bacon and made some sausage for our winter food supply. When I came to Tennessee years ago, a dairy farmer named Albert Hicks cured dry-rubbed and smoked country hams. Our family even bought some ham from him. When a visitor from the Northeast tried one of his hams, he wanted to buy some more...like 100 of them. So, Albert went door-to-door trying to buy fresh hams to fill the order.
“A week after I resigned the school position, Albert’s business was slated to close and I asked him about leasing the facility,” Benton notes. “It was more primitive than anyone could imagine. It had an outhouse and no inspection. I wanted to make a go of it and began by buying 200 fresh hams from packers to get enough product to make it a viable business. I cured my first hams there in the fall of 1972. Farmers and people stopped by the shop which was behind the house to buy real country hams.”
Start spreading the news
Benton remembers his first piece of equipment, an old rotary dial phone he still uses today.
“I wasn’t going to sell much being way out of town and a quarter-mile off the road,” he says. “So, I got on the phone and started calling high level chefs in the cities. I talked very slow with this Southern accent and they were talking very fast. They lost their patience with me and most of them hung up.
“Then I would send them a handwritten letter with a sample of my country ham and bacon and asked them to try it alongside of the meats they were using in their cooking and see if they could discern the difference. I wrote my phone number and told them how to order more. But I also advised them that if they didn’t think it was good product, I would not bother them again. Most called back and placed orders.”
Today Benton’s Smoky Mountain Country Ham is on the table at high-end restaurants from Napa Valley to Chicago and New Orleans. More than 200 New York City restaurants use his products.
“I have to give those chefs credit,” he says. “They were catering to people who had traveled the world and found that my hams and bacon were approaching the world quality flavor, equivalent to or better than what they could buy in Europe. These folks told me they could be used in a way similar to prosciutto, Serrano and Parma-type hams from Italy and Spain. They really made it happen and in a larger sense helped rejuvenate the entire US country ham industry. For me and so many other small country ham producers, this became a door to get respect back for Southern cooking and foods.”
Benton found the need to expand the legacy business he took over in 1947 and bought a larger property closer to a main road. His 18,000-sq.-ft. curing, aging and smoking facility with 20 employees is not a typical “hole-in-the-wall” and now operates under federal inspection. The green painted building still has a small retail store area.
“Someone told me that my real business has become mail order since I ship about 80 percent of what we produce by UPS to restaurants, hotels and individual accounts across the country,” Benton says.
“He suggested that I should close the retail store. I had to decline that suggestion. Where else or what else on earth could you do that could give you greater satisfaction than being in this little shop and seeing world-famous chefs, farmers in bib overalls and businessmen in three-piece suits come in looking for your hams and bacon because it’s what they like and were willing to drive here to get. And, they tell you that. You could not find a greater cross-section or slice of humanity that love meats made the right way than walk through that door. That’s worth much more than money to me.”
Another important part of Benton’s story is his crediting the university agricultural department and meat specialists he contacted to learn how to improve his country hams. He says he wrote to most of the universities and they wrote back and began offering him advice and help.
“It wasn’t so much about changing the basic curing and aging process,” he notes. “I still use salt and nitrates, sugar and pepper. But you have to realize that I had a lot to learn and they were gracious enough to give me help when I needed it most. Spoilage was a problem and I had to get answers on preventing it very quickly.”
Benton’s produces about 18,000 hams a year, 90 percent of them smoked, and something on the order of 1,200 lbs. of bacon weekly. They package and ship out their mail-order sales in-house.
Benton reflects on the country ham industry and its producers as a family. “There are fewer of us around today,” he asserts. “But those who are left make some of the finest meats and gourmet foods on the planet...they are truly world-class.”
The country ham industry went through the nitrate/nitrite scare of the late 1970s, smaller family sizes, and ham and bacon for breakfast changed to cereals and yogurts, but Benton says he survived it all and is delighted to see these Southern products rebound back to the center of the world food stage. People caring about where their food comes from and how it’s made has played a large role in that renaissance, he believes.
Benton says most hams he sells now are smaller, about 16 lbs. on average, and the vast majority are sold sliced. His typical country ham is 14 months old, and the market is clamoring for more of the 20- to 28-month-old hams. Hand-rubbed, long-aged and smoked with an old hickory-wood stove, Benton’s country hams are produced in what is still a slow, low-tech process. It’s in the rich mahogany color, smoky flavor and savory, unforgettable taste that the real sophistication dwells.
“I like to get the pasture-raised hogs for the flavor their diet gives the meat,” he points out. “We want to find those special hogs and that means buying from area farms. But think about it, when you find a new source for your hogs, you have to have a lot of trust in what they say the diet was for the animal. It can take you up to two years to find out if you can rely on that source of supply. Still, we may have about 1 in 500 of our hams that come out spoiled.”
As renown and in-demand as his products may be, Benton says he has never put them in competition.
“I’ve had meat specialists who judge those products tell me I’ve got a sure-fire winner if I enter at a state fair or other organized competition. I let my customers judge me and my products,” he philosophizes.
“We have no plaques or trophies and if we did I’m not sure we would put them up. We’ve had people come in saying they saw stories about our meats in some pretty famous publications or that they are all over the internet,” he adds. “If a customer wants to put some article about us on the board, they do it with their thumbtack. It’s just not something we do to promote ourselves.”
Benton asserts his desire to remain the man behind the country ham for at least another 20 years or more. When asked about his family taking over, he proudly lets you know that his children are doctors: “They’ll cure a lot more than I ever did – it just won’t be meat. And I’m mighty proud of that.”