Allan Benton is a frequent speaker for the “Foodways of Appalachia” class, and he always brings along bacon and ham for the students. Allan rarely carries a business card. He was a latecomer to the Internet. He never advertises. When David Chang, head of New York City’s Momofuku restaurant group, requested information about Allan’s products, what he got in return was a scroll of butcher paper with handwritten notes sketching the story of Benton’s Smoky Mountain Country Hams in Madisonville, Tennessee.
Allan calls himself a “hillbilly,” proudly, and labels his country ham and bacon store on Highway 411 a “hole-in-the-wall business.”
He is a ham-curer and bacon-smoker of old. His techniques, and the many months they involve, have changed little from those of his grandparents, who were subsistence farmers in a secluded hollow in Scott County, Virginia.
Before chefs at Blackberry Farm in Walland, Tennessee, discovered him some 20 years ago, Allan says his customer base consisted of “a few locals and some greasy spoon restaurants.” Now, this former high school guidance counselor is the talk of the pork world, and his goods span the continent.
“I couldn’t have imagined, 20 years ago, that I would ever sell to one fine dining restaurant,” Allan says. Now he estimates that his bacon and ham are served by around 30 restaurants in New York City alone, while neighbors still walk into his East Tennessee store to buy a roll of sausage or a slab of ham for the home kitchen.
“David Chang thinks nothing of ordering a couple of hundred pounds of bacon ends or ham hocks at a time for the Momofuku restaurants, or just some ham bones and skins,” says Allan. “He uses my products in ways that defy logic or gravity, as well as on charcuterie plates and in making stock to season mussels or clams.”
Yet for Allan and his wife Sharon, the preferred cooking method for country ham is still the simple, ageless way they have appreciated since childhood: pan-frying in a black iron skillet.
Pour ¼ cup of brewed coffee into an iron skillet and sprinkle in one tablespoon of brown sugar. On medium heat, fry two or three slices of country ham for about two or three minutes per side. Remove ham and add 1/3 cup more coffee to the skillet. Increase heat to medium-high and stir, loosening the browned particles from the bottom of the skillet. Reduce the liquid to the point where you added the second measurement of coffee. Serve gravy over biscuits or grits.