The View from My Kitchen

Benvenuti! I hope you enjoy il panorama dalla mia cucina Italiana -- "the view from my Italian kitchen,"-- where I indulge my passion for Italian food and cooking. From here, I share some thoughts and ideas on food, as well as recipes and restaurant reviews, notes on travel, and a few garnishes from a lifetime in the entertainment industry.

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Grazie mille!

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Baconfest: A Great Place to Make a Pig of Yourself

Bacon....It's Not Just for Breakfast Anymore!

I'm fortunate to live in a place with a great local butcher shop. I've got a good relationship with my butcher. He appreciates that I never purchase meat anywhere else, and I appreciate that because of him I don't have to. With one little exception. I will blatantly cheat on my butcher with Allan Benton every chance I get. My local guy knows it and he doesn't really care because I also bring him a pound or two of Benton's Hickory Smoked Country Bacon whenever I stop at Allan's place in Madisonville, Tennessee to stock up.

So I happened to mention to him the other day that I'll be heading off to Baconfest in Johnson City, Tennessee next week, where they'll have a supply of Benton's bacon on hand. To my great surprise, he had never heard of Baconfest. Not just of this relatively modest event but of Baconfests in general. Where's he been?

Baconfests and/or bacon festivals are taking the country by storm. Formerly the province of big cities with big epicurean populations, celebrations of bacon are now turning up in hamlets – sorry, but I had to go there – across the nation. Sometimes these paeans to pork are day-long events and sometimes organizers just pig out and pack everything into a few hours. Occasionally a bacon festival will be held as part of a larger food event and once in a while you'll find one paired up with beer or an equally compatible comestible. Baconfests can be held for the benefit of a particular charity or community cause or they can exist just for fun and porky pleasure.

So what happens at a baconfest? Well, people bring in these chickens.........C'mon! It's all about bacon! In general, baconfests are made up of three elements: an exhibition of bacon and bacon products by national, regional, and/or local artisans and vendors; a sampling menu of bacon dishes provided by area chefs and restaurants; and a selection of bacony beverages. Usually the exhibition area is open to the public for a nominal fee with access to the food and beverage areas granted to those who choose to purchase a “V.I.P.” upgrade.

Chicago began praising pork bellies back in 2009 with what it describes as a “humble beginning” to a now world-class event, one that was featured on the Travel Channel in 2012 and included 120 participating chefs and restaurants in 2013.

New York and Washington, D.C. boast a Baconfest and so do San Francisco and San Diego. In between the coasts are events in DesMoines, Kansas City, Atlanta, Boston, and Orlando. But smaller venues like River Falls, Wisconsin; Littleton, Colorado; Grand Forks, North Dakota; and Ann Arbor, Michigan also see queues of rabid bacon lovers lining up to party.

Dayton, Ohio hosted its first Bacon Fest in 2013, an event that caught virgin vendors off guard and resulted in nearly everybody at the sixteen participating restaurants running out of bacon. After the social media backlash organizers promise to be better prepared next year.

Another fledgling pork party happened in Coconut Creek, Florida this year. They also underestimated the appeal of bacon to the approximately 2,500 folks who showed up and ate them out of a literal ton of bacon. They're planning to double the size of their event next year.

Twenty local restaurants and more that twenty craft beers were highlighted at Richmond, Virginia's inaugural Bacon Fest this year. Elsewhere in the Old Dominion, Roanoke will get its bacon on on Labor Day weekend in honor of International Bacon Day, August 31.

They're planning a Bacon Bash in Hoboken, New Jersey on September 7.

Also on September 7, the aforementioned Johnson City will host its 2nd Annual Tri-Cities Baconfest at VENUE downtown. The event sort of evolved from an attempt in Knoxville that was short-lived because of conflicts on the part of the initial organizers. A local non-profit revived the East Tennessee festival, bringing it to Bristol, TN/VA last year and broadening the scope and range by relocating to Johnson City for 2013. A big plus is that this will be an indoor party. Another selling point is the all-inclusive nature of the tickets. On the downside/upside, tickets are limited, but such limitation insures that attendees get their money's worth. Nobody leaves hungry or unsatisfied because of shortages. And it's all for a good cause. Proceeds benefit Special Spaces, a San Francisco-based charity that creates dream bedrooms for children with life-threatening illnesses. And there'll be Benton's bacon. What more could you want? Information?

If you can't make the Tri-Cities event, fear not for there is likely a celebration of bacon coming to a city near you. Bacon Today, the online source for everything bacon, keeps track of such things at Events still on the horizon as of this writing include:

The San Diego Hormel Black Label Bacon Fest, San Diego, CA – August 31, 2013
Baconfest VA, Roanoke, VA – August 31, 2013
The Camden Riversharks Bacon Fest, Camden, NJ – August 31, 2013
Tri-Cities Baconfest, Johnson City, TN – September 7, 2013
River Falls Bacon Bash, River Falls, WI – September 8, 2013
Alferd Packer Bacon Party, Littleton, CO – September 14, 2013 (And, yes, “Alferd” is correct.)
The Orlando Festival of Bacon, Orlando, FL – October 5, 2013
Happy Harry's Beer and Bacon Festival, Grand Forks, ND – October 5, 2013
Baconfest San Francisco, San Francisco, CA – October 11, 2013
Ozarks Bacon Fest, Springfield, MO – October 12, 2013

And organizers of the Chicago, St. Louis, and DesMoines festivals are already gearing up for 2014.

The biggest problem I foresee here is how I'm going to make San Diego, Roanoke, and Camden all on the same day. Same for Orlando and Grand Forks in October. But I'm working on it.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Bringing Home the Benton's Bacon

I just had another wonderful visit with the Bacon Whisperer, Allan Benton. I stopped by his
The "Bacon Whisperer"-- Allan Benton
establishment in Madisonville, Tennessee to see how work was progressing on repairs after the recent smokehouse fire. And I also really needed to get some more of the world's best bacon, Benton's Hickory Smoked Country Bacon.

Allan is an amazing man. He greeted me warmly as soon as he saw me standing in his shop drooling on his bacon. I mean, this is a guy who counts lauded and applauded celebrity chefs among his customers and yet he drops everything to recognize and chat with a hack food blogger like me.

Construction on the building appears to be coming along well. Allan downplays the fire, saying only, “It could have been worse.”

We talked about quality. “My daddy told me when I got in this business to never cut corners on quality,” Benton says. “Always make it the best way you can no matter what it costs.”

Allan alluded to nearly “starving to death” in the early years of his business partly because of his dedication to quality. “I was aging hams for up to twenty-eight months and was up against people aging them for eighty days. I was selling to people who just wanted it as cheap as they could get it and was about starving to death because of it. If somebody came in and undercut my price by two cents a pound, buyers would just drop me and go with the cheaper guy.”

Fortunately, a sea change in food culture over the past twenty years or so has brought about a greater emphasis on quality. People are learning that “cheap” and “good” are often mutually exclusive. More and more, cooks are seeking out less processed, higher quality food to meet the demands of more educated consumers. This is true both in the home kitchen and at the restaurant level, where the “farm to table” movement continues to expand and move forward.

But for Allan Benton, a man ahead of the curve, it wasn't always an easy sell. “When I first started out, I tried calling these chefs to tell them about my product and they hung up on me before I even got finished telling them my name.” Not anymore. Nowadays, Allan Benton's name is on “speed dial” in Michelin- starred restaurants across the country. It's even indexed in David Chang's Momofuku cookbook. And how did this transformation come about? It started right in Allan's metaphorical back yard.

You wouldn't think it really likely that you'd find a profusely acclaimed luxury resort tucked away in the hills of East Tennessee. But Blackberry Farms, near Walland, is a really unlikely place. Called “Eden in the Tennessee foothills” by Gourmet magazine and dubbed “a Ritz-Carlton in the woods” by Country Inns, Blackberry Farms' list of accolades from James Beard, Zagat, Fodor's, Wine Spectator, and a host of others is nearly endless. It would be easier to cite the awards the place hasn't received. And when former executive chef John Fleer was developing his renowned “Foothills Cusine” at the resort, he turned to local sources for as much product as possible. Since Madisonville was just a stone's throw away, that, of course, included incorporating Allan Benton's bacon.

In case you weren't aware, big time chefs kinda pal around together. They visit one another's restaurants and “borrow” one another's recipes and concepts. They sit around and talk food. And so it was that Tom Coliccho happened by Blackberry Farms one day and was turned on to Allan Benton's bacon. Colicchio immediately began importing Benton's porky ambrosia to his multi-award-winning Craft in New York. David Chang was in Colicchio's kitchen in those days, and he immediately went gaga over Benton's bacon, ultimately making it a staple in his evolving Momofuku restaurant empire. (Chang now has his own rack in the smokehouse.) Soon Charleston's Sean Brock, Chicago's Paul Kahan, Napa Valley's Thomas Keller, New Orleans' John Besh, and a score of other cutting edge chefs were all featuring this spectacular but humble ingredient spectacularly produced by a very humble man. “Some writer once called me a 'rock star'”, says Benton. “I wish he could have been here a little while ago when I was sweeping out the back.”

Indeed, Allan Benton presides over one of the most unprepossessing food empires you're ever likely to encounter. The cinder block building squatting beside Highway 411 a few miles out of Madisonville does nothing to scream “success.” It looks like an old-timey meat market, an image that continues once you pass through the door. With its old-fashioned display cases and handwritten signs, except for a modern POS system, it could be a time machine trip back to the 1960s. The only thing that betrays the fact that this is not just some little hole-in-the-wall country store is the underlying bustle of a large number of white-coated employees working at peak speed and efficiency to keep up with the increasing demands of what has become a national business.

As we chatted about bacon, I mentioned Neuske's bacon as being worthy of consideration. While Allan agreed, he quickly pointed out what separates his bacon from the Wisconsin-produced variety that is also quite popular with chefs. “Mine's a dry cure. Theirs is wet. It's good for a wet cure bacon, but mine is totally different.”

Indeed. In a dry cure process, a cure mixture – usually consisting of salt, sugar, curing salt and other flavoring ingredients – is applied to the surface of the meat. Dry cured bacon is then hung on racks in cold rooms and allowed to age and cure for several months, being “overhauled” (flipped and rotated) at regular intervals to ensure uniform curing. Excess salt is rinsed off and the meat is allowed to air dry before being smoked by either a cold-smoke or hot-smoke method.

Wet cured bacon is immersed in a brine solution for up to two weeks and is sometimes injected with brine in order to achieve deep penetration and to shorten curing time.

Dry cured bacon tends to be...well...drier when you cook it, so you have to be careful not to get it too crispy. As Allan puts it, “It has to have a little bend in it.” But there is virtually no shrinkage in a dry cured bacon and the flavor is generally more intense.

Wet cured bacon, on the other hand, is, by definition, full of water. The more you cook it the more water it exudes and the more it shrinks up. Wet curing usually results in a milder, less salty flavor. A lot of premium bacon producers use a combination curing method that kind of gives you the best of both worlds.

Most commercial bacon, however, is cured by another method – a variation of wet curing that involves pump injecting the meat with brine and then tumbling it in big drums to distribute the curing solution. Pump injecting bacon adversely affects the quality of the finished product. Supermarket bacon is cured in this manner because the process allows manufacturers to make a lot more of it in a much shorter period of time. Bacon produced this way is usually ready for the smoker in twenty-four hours or less.

Watching commercial bacon production is like watching a Detroit assembly line. Pork bellies come in on trucks. They get run through a machine that slices off the skin. Rollers flatten the bellies out and they move into another machine where more than a hundred tiny needles inject a blend of chemicals into the meat. This blend is usually made up of water, salt, sugar, sodium phosphate, sodium erythorbate, and sodium nitrite. Then the meat is heated, smoked, and cooled for up to 72 hours before it hits yet another series of machines that press it into uniform slabs, slice it into uniform slices, and vacuum-pack it into uniform packages.

so exquisitely, exuding a rich, unctuous fat that is almost totally absent from water-laden supermarket bacon. Many chefs and cooks – including yours truly – reserve these decadent drippings for use in other dishes. (I pour the fat directly from my cast iron griddle into my cast iron skillet and cook my seasoned breakfast potatoes in it.)

Benton's Hickory Smoked Country Bacon
Allan doesn't do any of that. All of his machines and processors have two hands and experienced, discerning eyes. The slices are rustic, thick, and decidedly non-uniform. But they cook up

Comparing Benton's bacon to supermarket bacon – especially the cheap, off brand stuff – is like comparing fine Swiss chocolate to the waxy brown substance produced by Hershey. There simply IS no comparison. Ever ready with an analogy, my wife likens the difference to driving a stripped down Yugo versus driving a tricked out Cadillac SUV. They'll both get you there, but you'll enjoy the ride a lot more in one than in the other.

The first thing I said to Allan when I saw him the other day was, “Five hundred miles is a long way to go for a pound of bacon.” But, you know what? It's worth it.

Benton's Smoky Mountain Country Hams
2603 Hwy. 411 North
Madisonville, Tennessee 37354-6356
Phone: (423) 442-5003