|The "Bacon Whisperer"-- Allan Benton|
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|
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