You may have heard of them?
His country ham can be found in Momofuku Noodle Bar’s ramen bowls in New York City and his bacon ground into the patties of Husk’s legendary cheeseburgers in Charleston. He has been called such monikers as “bacon god” and “ham hero.”
But before Allan Benton’s name was in the contact list of every star chef’s cell phone, he was an almost-high school guidance counselor in Madisonville, Tennessee.
Benton’s path to pork notoriety was not an overnight success. In the late 1960s, after realizing that the paltry guidance counselor salary wouldn’t be enough to sustain his family, he quit the job before he even started and decided to take over a retired business doing what he knew best: smoking hams. Growing up in rural Virginia, Benton’s family raised everything they ate, and the cure recipe he learned from his grandparents became the basis for his business. He still uses it today along with the old-style pig breeds like Berkshire, Tamworth, and Duroc.
Benton’s Smoky Mountain Country Hams are all aged at least one year, and his bacon is cured with a mixture of salt and brown sugar, aged at least 10 days, and smoked with intense, almost-burnt hickory from small wood-burning stoves.
Once his ham and bacon found it’s way into Chef John Fleer’s dishes at Blackberry Farm, other chefs who dined there slowly but surely clamored to make orders. Now the name “Benton” is just as common of a site on menus in San Francisco or Minneapolis as they are in Knoxville, Tennessee.
But it would be a mistake to think that all this has inflated his ego. In fact, Benton may be even more known for his humble, genuine demeanor more than his ham. He’s known to send out spontaneous boxes of bacon with handwritten notes and best wishes for future BLTs.
As he said in a Lucky Peach interview, “My dad was a pretty wise guy and he said, ‘Well, son, if you play the other guys’ game, you always lose.’ He said, ‘Simply make it the best you know how to make it. If you make it good enough, people will come.’ I followed my dad’s advice and did it my way.”