posted by Melanie Young
In Tennessee we have special terms to measure distance like “yonder,” “up the road” and “down a ways.” This can mean anything from a short drive or a long haul.
Just up the road about an hour or so drive north of my hometown Chattanooga, Tennessee, is Benton’s Smoky Mountain Country Ham in Madisonville. Some of the nation’s best country ham and bacon comes this relatively small facility in operation since 1947. It’s easy to pass by the unassuming building when you’re driving along the highway. But you’ll never pass up a serving of Benton’s ham and bacon once you have a taste.
I first discovered Allan Benton thanks to my mother, Sonia Young. She promised Chef Daniel Boulud a Tennessee country ham one night after a particularly indulgent dinner at Restaurant Daniel in New York City. After we sent Chef Boulud a Benton’s ham we made it our tradition to send thank you hams to every chef who took care of us at a dinner in their restaurants. Over the years I’d send packets of Benton’s bacon to friends and colleagues as thank you gifts.
My mother and I and the chefs we thanked weren’t the only ones who discovered Allan Benton. Back then he had devoted following of southern chefs like John Fleer who, at the time, was executive chef at Blackberry Farm in nearby Walland (he’s now at Rhubarb in Asheville), and John Besh at August in New Orleans. Allan had a supportive network through the highly regarded nonprofit Southern Foodways Alliance whose director, John T. Edge, brought him to New York for his first visit. He was a big hit with the Yankee chefs as well as others around the nation.
When I first ordered from Allan Benton he didn’t have a website or take credit cards. All our communications were by phone until one time, during visit to see my family, David and I took a drive “up the road” to Madisonville.
It was like visiting an old friend. Alan is a Southern gentleman to the core, low-key with a thick drawl. We took the “tour,” really a small smokehouse out back and a large curing facility where hams hung row after row. Benton’s Country Hams are slow cured using salt, brown sugar, and sodium nitrite and typically aged 9-10 months; some hams are available some year and older. There’s is a time honored traditional dry curing process. We brought a small suitcase to haul back packets of Benton’s addictive bacon and jars of the absolutely best Tennessee Chow Chow sold from a small display of other locally made products.
As more chefs became devotees, Allan’s fame increased substantially. Media have flocked to Benton’s to check out his curing facility, and he’s been featured in major magazines, even a YouTube video. Benton’s now has a website; and all credit cards are welcome.
I was tickled pink when I heard the news that Allan Benton was being inducted in the The James Beard Foundation Who’s Who of Food & Beverage in America this year. These are the highest honors bestowed on food, beverage and hospitality industry professionals. I called Allan to congratulate him and, ever gracious, he told me how my my Dad, Mel Young, meant to him. My father, who grew up in a conservative Midwestern Jewish family, just loved Benton’s bacon!
We’ll be chewing the fat with Allan on Wednesday, May 6, on The Connected Table LIVE! 2pm ET on W4CY and iHeart.com. Listen to all our podcasts any time on iHeart.com and the iHeart App: http://www.iheart.com/show/209-The-Connected-Table-Live. Follow us on Twitter. Like us on Facebook.