Let's say you're driving down I-75 between Knoxville and Chattanooga and you are suddenly overtaken by a desire to have some of the best bacon on the planet. Boy, are you in luck! Just a few miles off Exit 60 you'll find Benton's Smoky Mountain Hams – and you will be ever so glad you did.
When you get off the Interstate, you'll travel a little ways through Sweetwater, Tennessee on Highway 68 and on into Madisonville, where you'll switch over to Highway 411. Right on the outskirts of town, you'll come to number 2603 – a long, rather non-descript-looking concrete block building – and you'll think, “This can't be it.” But trust me, you've arrived at hog heaven.
Displayed on the exterior of Benton's Smoky Mountain Country Hams, just to the right of a hand-lettered sign that announces the hours of operation, are the words, “We Cure 'Em.” And that's just what they do, using an old-fashioned method of slow dry-curing that employs salt, brown sugar, black and red pepper, and hickory smoke. Lots of hickory smoke. You can smell it as soon as you get out of your car. (You can buy unsmoked products, too. But why would you?)
|Allan Benton |
(Photo courtesy The Bacon Hall of Fame)
|Benton's Bacon |
(Photo courtesy The Bacon Hall of Fame)
Blame it all on his roots. Allan Benton learned everything he knows about curing pork from his grandparents, residents of rural Scott County, Virginia – a place where they know a thing or two about bacon and ham. After a stint as a school teacher, Benton took up the meat business in a rented block smokehouse where a local dairy farmer had previously cured and sold country hams. Employing his grandparents' recipe and techniques, Benton's business took off like a greased pig and he soon bought the whole shootin' match.
Hearkening back to the way his grandpa harvested hogs that had been allowed to forage in the forests, feasting on acorns, roots, leaves, and tender grasses, Benton uses only pasture-raised heritage breed pigs for his porcine delicacies. And the superior quality of the meat shines through in every sumptuous bite.
Although country hams and hickory-smoked bacon are the mainstays of the business, there are a few other porky delights in store, like prosciutto, for instance. Yep. Succulent Italian-style ham. What more could you want?
If the middle of East Tennessee is a little bit out of your way, Benton's will ship anywhere in the United States from their website at http://bentonscountryhams2.com. Be forewarned, though; this place is extremely popular and crazy busy. In the shop, the line stays backed up to the door. On the web, the shipping time can be up to a month or more.
Benton's Smoky Mountain Country Hams is at 2603 Highway 411 North, Madisonville, Tennessee 37354. They're open 8:30 to 5:00 Monday through Saturday. Call (423) 442-5003, e-mail Allan.Benton@gmail.com or check out the website mentioned in the previous paragraph.
What goes better with bacon than cheese? Follow me. Back to I-75 and up (or down) the road to Exit 68. We're going to Philadelphia. No, not that Philadelphia. All they've got there is Independence Hall. Philadelphia, Tennessee has Sweetwater Valley Farm.
Now, you don't have to go nearly as far off the beaten path to get to Sweetwater Valley Farm. Turn off the exit, go 2 miles, make a left and you're there.
|(Image courtesy Sweetwater Valley Farm)|
The International Dairy Foods Association recently named SVF its “Innovative Dairy Farm of the Year” and it's easy to see why. I grew up in “America's Dairyland,” and this place is impressive by anybody's standards.
It's neat and clean and pretty, but, make no mistake, this is a real working farm. A thousand cows, twenty million pounds of milk annually, three million pounds of which become some of the most delicious cheese I've ever had.
Sweetwater Valley Farm is one of the few remaining farms in the country still producing high quality farmstead cheese. Owner John Harrison brilliantly combines modern dairying with age-old artisanal methods and turns out a great variety of absolutely beautiful, all-natural cheddar cheeses. And I do mean variety! More than twenty of them.
The farm started turning milk into cheese about a decade ago. It was good, but they soon discovered that people's tastes were always changing and more flavors were always in demand. So Harrison set about meeting that demand and today he turns out a stunning product line that ranges from Adobo to Yellow Cheddar, offering mild cheeses, sharp cheeses, and everything in between. All fresh, all natural, and all delicious.
|Yellow Cheddar |
(Image courtesy Sweetwater Valley Farm)
But the SVF experience doesn't stop in the cheese store/gift shop. There's “The Udder Story,” too, an exhibit that explores the dairy industry's past, present and future and presents answers to questions you probably didn't know you had. And there's also a walking tour that allows visitors to see many of the details of a modern, productive dairy operation.
As with Benton's, if you find that SVF is a bit of a commute, they have a website and they ship. And, to our great surprise, they're cheap. I've paid a lot more for a lot less in specialty shops and in the cheese sections of high-end grocers all over the country. But don't let that get around. We'll keep it our secret.
|(Image courtesy |
Sweetwater Valley Farm)
Sweetwater Valley Farm is located at 17988 West Lee Highway, Philadelphia, Tennessee 37846. They're open Monday through Friday 8:30 to 6 and on Saturdays from 9 to 5. They also open from 1to 5 on Sundays during the summer and over the Thanksgiving-Christmas holidays. Call (877) 862-4332, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or check out www.sweetwatervalley.com.
There are scores of places like Benton's and Sweetwater Valley Farm all across the length and breadth of America. Good quality food is still out there. All you have to do is look for it. Even if you don't have a Benton's or a Sweetwater Valley Farm nearby, chances are there's a local farmers market, butcher shop, fishmonger, produce market, or bakery near you. Sure, it's not as handy as one-stop shopping at the supercenter, but it can be so much better. And so much better for you. It's the way we used to shop before convenience became more important than quality. Whether you hop in your car or fire up your computer, visit Benton's Smoky Mountain Hams and Sweetwater Valley Farm and add some real food to your shopping list today.