You can search the food world over and you'll never find a nicer guy than Allan Benton. He runs a modest little shop in a way off the beaten path place in the hills of East Tennessee. I won't say he doesn't know the meaning of the word “pretension” because he's a smart guy and I'm sure he does. But he doesn't exhibit an ounce of it. He keeps his shoulder to the wheel the same as he has every day since 1973 when he took over an established smokehouse operation started by Albert H. Hicks in 1947 and renamed it “Benton's Smoky Mountain Country Hams.” Ask him and he'll tell you he doesn't do anything special. His business isn't rocket science, he says. “If it was, I surely couldn't do it.” He avers over and over that he “ain't nothin' but an ol' hillbilly.”
Having spent more than forty years in various parts of the South, I know a lot of “ol' hillbillies.” But Allan Benton is the only one I know who has a James Beard award.
After being praised for years by top chefs from coast to coast – including the “Top Chef” himself, Tom Colicchio – the “ol' hillbilly” from Virginia and East Tennessee has been recognized by the renowned James Beard Foundation when they recently inducted him into the annals of “Who's Who of Food and Beverage in America.” And it's about time.
Awards from the James Beard Foundation are the culinary equivalents of the Oscars. Only the best of the best are chosen. From www.jamesbeard.org, “The James Beard Foundation’s Who’s Who of Food and Beverage in America is a cadre of the most accomplished food and beverage professionals in the country. Though they represent a diverse cross-section of the food and beverage industry—from chefs to journalists to farmers to business executives to scholars—each has been identified by his or her peers as having displayed remarkable talent and achievement. Every member of the Who’s Who has contributed in some substantial way to America’s constantly evolving culinary scene.” And that last line is Allan Benton in a nutshell.
Allan Benton is a national treasure. As in the old song, Allan was “country when country wasn't cool.” He learned his trade at the hands of his parents and grandparents and he stayed true to those time-honored methods in spite of pressures to modernize, expand, and capitalize. His persistence and dedication to quality paid off handsomely when the rest of the world finally caught on to what he'd known all along.
There were lean times. His hams and bacon sold well enough locally to customers who dropped by his store on Highway 411 North in Madisonville, but he wasn't exactly storming the ramparts of commercial suppliers like Hormel and Oscar Meyer. And, truth be told, he didn't really want to because in order to compete with those national entities, or even with regional bigshots like Valleydale, he would have had to have changed his methods. He could have installed brine injectors and automated slicers and all the other trappings of factory produced ham and bacon, but he chose to stay true to his roots. And in doing so, he positioned himself at the forefront of a movement that hadn't even taken shape yet. Talk about cutting edge!
It took a recent fire in the smokehouse to get Allan to expand a little. But his storefront is still the same as it's been for decades. So is his office, located just to the left of the front door. Sometimes he's in there on the phone. Sometimes he's back in the smokehouse. Sometimes he's on the sales floor chatting with customers who no longer hail just from Madisonville. Oh, the locals are still there, but on any given day, Allan can be found mingling with people from Maine or California or Florida or Texas or maybe Canada. The grocery store chains hound him for the rights to sell his products. He declines. Same reason as always; in order to supply a store like Kroger the way an Oscar Meyer does, Allan would have to pump up the volume by pumping his bacon full of water and preservatives the way Oscar Meyer does. And that ain't gonna happen.
Allan dry cures his bacon. Hand rubs it with salt and brown sugar and sets it aside to cure for a month. Then it's wreathed in thick hickory and applewood smoke before being sliced, hand packaged and vacuum sealed. The result is not your anemic supermarket bacon. Uh-uh. When you bite Allan's bacon, it bites back. Some might consider the unctuous salty-sweet-smokiness an acquired taste, but man, once you acquire it, you'll never go back to bland bacon. The pork Allan processes comes from pasture-raised heritage breed pigs; animals that are never subjected to concrete feed lots and are never pumped full of hormones.
Here's Allan's take; “This is the way bacon was made for years. This is the way it was made years ago. Now we're going quicker. But our goal isn't to make it quicker. It's to make the best bacon we can make."
And it's Allan's dedication to hands-on quality that's put him at the top of the culinary world. Yeah, he could probably be a kajillionaire if he sold out, but he does pretty darn well with the client list he's established over the years. Tom Colicchio, Sean Brock, Hugh Acheson, Thomas Keller, Emeril Lagasse, John Besh, David Chang and a host of kitchen heavyweights from coast to coast and border to border scarf up as much of his premium pork product as they can possibly procure. In fact, Chang calls Allan a “hero” and refers to his pork as “the ultimate old-school product.” John T. Edge, noted writer, commentator, and director of the Southern Foodways Alliance unabashedly calls Benton's “the country's best bacon.”
Allan's mail order business is booming. You want a couple of pounds of bacon? No problem. Order online today and in four to six weeks it'll be delivered to your door. Or you can follow my lead and make an occasional hundred mile detour just to drop by the shop.
And you know what? I'll bet Allan will show me that James Beard award next time I'm in the neighborhood. But he won't have it out on display. That's not his style. He takes quiet pride in his accomplishments. To him it's just about a job well done. That's the way “ol' hillbillies” look at things.
Congratulations, Allan, on yet another well-deserved recognition.
Note: Check out Allan's appearance on the award-winning PBS series “Mind of a Chef.” Look for Season 1: Episode 15 “Smoke” in which chef David Chang “profiles regional barbecue in North Carolina, Texas and Kansas City and the otherworldly smoky bacon from Allen Benton in Tennessee.” It's available on DVD and is also streaming on Netflix. There's also a little YouTube short on Benton's at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L6LHOpk8XoE.