Ham for The Holidays

Discover why the best chefs in the South order their bacon, country ham, and prosciutto from this tiny Tennessee shop.
Kim Cross

This is, hands down, the best bacon I've ever tasted. Ditto for the country ham. The prosciutto is as good as any I've sampled from Italy. But Benton's Smoky Mountain Hams come from a much closer source: Madisonville, Tennessee.

You don't have to take my word for it though. Just ask the farmers and chefs. Some of the nation's top culinary stars make magic with Benton's hams. Local farmers bring their personal hocks to be cured by the five-man shop that competes with industry giants.

The secret? They do things the slow way―using meat-curing practices thousands of years old. "Everything is done by hand," says Allan Benton, who speaks about curing ham with a passion that other men reserve for sports. Until recently, he kept his clients' addresses on yellowed sticky notes taped to the wall. "We're a hillbilly operation through and through," Allan says.

And wonderfully so. The transformation from pork to perfection takes place in a smoke-stained cinder-block building on the side of a Tennessee byway. In a traditional process that's never rushed, whole hams get slathered with salt, sugar, and the family's secret spices; then they cure―for 7 to 14 months―on wooden racks.

Out back, where the scent of smoking meat hangs thick in the air, Allan opens a sooty door to reveal the mysteries behind his bacon. As the fresh air clears out the little room, a tiny potbelly stove appears. "This is my smoke generator," Allan says. "I bought it for $50 from a cousin."

Order now, because publicity has driven demand for Benton's products, especially the smoked bacon. Allan loves telling the story of a Vegas casino that paid hundreds of dollars for an emergency overnight shipment. But then, who knows better than a casino how to bring home the bacon?

"Ham for The Holidays" is from the November 2007 issue of Southern Living. Because prices, dates, and other specifics are subject to change, please check all information to make sure it's still current before making your travel plans.