Monday, February 1, 2010

"Just a Hillbilly Operation”

The Farmer and The Chef made their first road trip to one of the most special venues in the pork world, Morrisville, Tennessee. South of Knoxville and North of Chattanooga in the middle of Appalachian off the beaten path is simple operation the envy of every foodie, and fine restaurants from Chicago, New York, Atlanta and the gems throughout all of America, Benton’s Smoked Country Hams.

Early one morning the Farmer and the Chef started their journey down I-81 to Knoxville and then south along I-75. Assuming that the Tennessee Department of Transportation would know the significance of Morrisville, TN to all who enjoy bacon and would have an exit sign if not a historical marker indicating how to find Benton’s, we casually drove an hour south of our exit before calling Mr. Benton to ask for directions.

As the morning started early, we asked if there was a place he would recommend for lunch that may serve some of his products. He assured us there was not and that “we are more famous in New York City and Chicago than we are around here”.

We drove up to Benton’s Smoked Country Hams, a dozen miles or so off the highway and not a downtown nearby. The simple building was bellowing the soft aroma of hickory smoke on a cool winter day.

When we entered the building, we were greeted by a man, wearing his overall’s and sitting on a bench placed there for all of the locals to congregate, drink coffee, share gossip, and critique the work of all those bustling about actually working. Maybe the soda machine with the price of years gone bye had something to do with the local congregation - 35 cent Pepsi's!

Mr. Allan Benton, proprietor, generally answers the phone, gives tours, greets each customer with the respect and excitement you would think would be reserved for the President or the Pope. And he gave us the same treatment. Although we know famous chefs from across the country have visited his shop, he was gracious and incredulous that “a chef would travel all the way from Roanoke, VA to visit him”.

He also appreciated the reality of farming when he assessed that The Farmer “must be the most successful farmer he has ever met if he had made enough gas money to travel all that way to see him”.

As Chef Sean Brock of McCrady’s Restaurant in Charleston, SC, a fan of Mr. Benton and a good customer of all of Benton’s products, told us prior to our visit that we would never meet a nicer gentleman. He was right.

Allan Benton started his career as a high school guidance counselor after getting his Master’s Degree. Having grown up in Hillsville, VA and being raised by parents who lived off the land and worked the land with horses rather than tractors, he always had an appreciation for the country arts of survival.

Some 35 years ago, the smoke house that would cure and smoke all the locals’ pork, decided to close. The smoke house was in the back yard of the owner and the school quidance counselor started working with him and eventually bought the operation. Working at school during the day and the smoke house at night, Allan Benton kept an important local resource open and providing a service so many had come to rely upon.

Although after a few years, Mr. Benton, built a new smoke house and moved out of the back yard of his friend and former owner. But he proclaims over and over again, ‘it’s just a hillbilly operation”.

As the years went by, Mr. Benton grew the business by focusing on what every chef cherishes, good products from the best farmers he could find. Allan created business relationships with farmers of Heritage Breeds of hogs and now works with farmers such as Fudge Farms. Fudge Farms, in Georgia, not only raises heritage breeds of hogs but is also Animal Welfare Approved. “Good food requires good ingredients” says Benton.

As we take our tour, we see racks and racks, made of 2 x 4’s, to hold hams and pork bellies, during the various stages of production. There is no automation, no fork lifts, just people who personally handle each ham and put personal pride into each one.

On each rack is a simple card that states when the ham was first salted, had the second salt applied, when it was smoked, and how long it had been cured. Hams older than a year hang on racks in every nook and cranny. But Mr. Benton took us to the hams that have been curing over 2 years. Try to find a Smithfield Ham that has been cured for over two years!

We had the pleasure of seeing a new batch of hams start the process of being salted, see Mr. Benton’s smoke house and fire box, and talk to him about the reverence so many fine chefs have for his product.

When I asked about buying some of his famous sack sausage, a product he will not ship so one must pick it up in person, he became cautious and concerned. He told us how he “had some for breakfast this morning and it just was not right. I used a new batch of sage and it may not be right”. The Farmer and the Chef each brought some home and thought it was exceptional.

We can assure everyone, that there is no better smoked bacon. It redefines what bacon should be.

The 25 month old cured ham, sliced for prosciutto, creates a heavenly culinary experience. The full hickory smoke flavor is soft and delightful. The “European Style” prosciutto will inspire a chef who has never had the chance to use artisan pork.

The FarmerandChef left with arms full of bacon, prosciutto, and cured hams. The Farmer will never buy bacon in a grocery store again and is already looking for a slicer so that he is never without Benton’s prosciutto.

Check out Benton’s Smoke Country Hams on their website: or better yet, personally visit Mr. Allan Benton and pick up an extra sack sausage for us!

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