I've eaten Allan Benton's extraordinary pork products before—it's hard to eat dinner at a certain type of restaurant in New York (not to mention Chicago, San Francisco, Charleston, or New Orleans) without ordering something deepened by his smoky, silky, funky bacon. Nevertheless, it wasn't until I paid a visit to Benton's smokehouse, aging facility, and storefront in Madisonville, Tennessee—not too far of a drive from Knoxville, southwest on Highway 411—that the character of this meat really worked its way under my skin. I mean that figuratively as well as literally: for days afterward, my skin and hair bore the lingering aroma of the rich, beautifully greasy smoke that permeates this small operation.
The experience was overwhelmingly olfactory, but the visual compoment of a visit to Benton's Smoky Mountain Country Hams is no less remarkable: I'd never seen so much pork in one place. But what seemed to my eyes to be an endless array of hams and bellies dry-aging and maturing (the hams age for twelve or twenty-four months; the bacon for three) is, by meat-processing standards, quite small. These are exceptional pieces of meat, salty and unctuous, made great both through Benton's exacting curing and aging, and by virtue of their provenance: Benton is so particular about the quality of the pork he buys that the scope of the operation is contained simply by the limits of his supply.
Demand, on the other hand, is seemingly without end: Benton, a man so utterly nice that it is not inaccurate to describe him as the Mother Teresa of meat, is genuinely delighted when recounting how his business has grown in the decade or so since his country ham was first embraced by chefs like David Chang and Damon Wise. Virtually every leg and belly in the place is promised to one chef or another; home cooks who'd like to incorporate a few pounds of bacon into their pantry frequently face down a weeks-long wait, and those who want a whole country ham of their own have to plan months ahead of time.
Of course, you can skip the line—for bacon, at least—if you make the trek down to Madisonville yourself: At the tiny storefront that heads the aging rooms, a freezer bin of vacuum-packed cured belly beckons to all comers for just $6 a package (that's the wholesale rate; at specialty grocers, a pound of Benton's can go for fifteen dollars or more). And so it was that I found myself, eight pounds and a few hours later, dumping cookbooks from my luggage to make room for all my newly-acquired, dry-cured treasure. It's been more than a month since then, the bacon's long been doled out to worthy friends and eaten, but my suitcase still smells sweet and smoky, and I couldn't be happier with that.
Benton's Smoky Mountain Country Hams
2603 Highway 411
Madisonville, Tennessee 37354