Over the course of 56 years on this planet I have accumulated a little wisdom. Some might argue how much wisdom, but there’s at least enough to fill a thimble. One thing I know for sure is that there are some people who make other people feel good by being in their presence. There are also some places that make people feel good by just being there. Last week, I got a double dose of both of those things.
My wife — a person who makes me feel good just being in her presence — and I spent our 25th anniversary at Blackberry Farm, one of our favorite places in the country and truly a place that makes me feel good by just being there.
On the way back home to Hattiesburg, we — did as we always do, and — stopped off in Madisonville, Tenn. at Benton’s Country Hams (a place that makes me feel good by just being there) to see my friend, Allan Benton (a man who always makes me happy just being in his presence).
Benton is the epitome of a gracious, country gentleman, but he is also the nation’s premiere curer of country hams and bacon.
Some people are known for their business acumen, others for their athletic skills, still others might be famous for their singing, acting, or dancing ability. Those are all fine, and I guess the notoriety is warranted in some cases. Benton is known because he smokes and cures the best country ham and bacon in the country. My friends, THAT is something to be known for. Is there a higher calling than master of bacon? Folks, unless you are our Lord and Savior (and maybe the Pope), I say, no. I’ll take one Allan Benton over 20 Washington politicians, 30 all-star athletes, and 40 Hollywood actors, every day. When it comes to celebrities.— in my book.— Allan Benton takes the cast iron skillet.
I first heard of Benton back in the late 1990s. A chef friend in New Orleans served some of his bacon, and it was so amazingly flavorful, I went back to the kitchen and said, “Tell me about this bacon!”
He said, “It comes from Allan Benton in the foothills of the Smokey Mountains in Tennessee.” He had heard of Benton through John Fleer, who, at the time, was the executive chef at the aforementioned Blackberry Farm. Fleer was sourcing local, and Benton was just a few miles down the road.
Back then, not many had heard of Allan Benton. New York’s, Tom Colicchio had yet to place his first order with Benton, which would eventually lead to David Chang placing an order, which would then lead to over 70 New York restaurants ordering the world’s best bacon in a matter of months. New Yorkers finally learned what we have known all along — Southerners know how to treat pork and Allan Benton does it best.
It turns out that I was one of the first people to write an article about Benton, who had been curing bacon and ham for over 20 years at that point. Business grew, notoriety mushroomed, press clippings piled up, and Allan Benton didn’t change a thing. That is the beauty, and the most telling character trait, of Allan Benton. He is one of the most genuinely humble people one could ever meet. He is a true southern gentleman, and on top of that, he smokes and cures the best bacon on the planet. Period. End of story.
Benton and I caught up, talked about old times, compared notes about recent trips to Spain and the differences between Jamon Iberico and country ham. I left, as I always do, with a carload of bacon, ham, and sausage, the latter being a rare commodity that can’t be shipped and only purchased in person.
I keep Benton’s bacon and ham hidden way in the back of my refrigerator and freezer. It’s treated like the precious commodity that it is. Guests who dine in our home for breakfast are either Benton-worthy or not (Note: If you have eaten breakfast at my house anytime over the past 20 years and I haven’t served you Benton’s bacon, it was probably because I was temporarily out, and not that I deemed you un-Benton-worthy).
If you have never tried Benton’s bacon, you should immediately stop reading this column, dial 423-442-5003 and order some (tell Allan I said, hi). True happiness comes from within. I believe that money and material things aren’t a legitimate source of inner peace. Benton’s bacon is. When your order arrives, guard it with your life. Selfishness is acceptable in this one instance. When you cook Benton’s bacon, don’t use the typical procedures you employ when cooking grocery-store bacon. Highly cured bacon takes about half as long to cook. Use a cast-iron skillet and remove it from the skillet when it looks half cooked (trust me, it’s done). Drain on a paper towel, and thank me later.
Benton’s facility has grown over the years. The building is bigger, the curing rooms are larger and the staff has grown. Though Benton’s congenial nature hasn’t changed a lick. He’s still the polite, humble guy he always has been. If you put Benton in a room with the nation’s top chefs, he’s — in their eyes — a rock star on steroids. Though in that room and in his eyes, he’s as courteous and deferential as anyone you’ll ever meet.
He’ll tell you there’s no trick to making his bacon and ham. It’s true. I’ve been through the facility several times. That little smoker he’s used for decades is nothing fancy. The key is time. And porcine perfection takes time.
Grocery store bacon is typically quick-cured using a chemical process that takes a few hours. Benton’s process uses salt, sugar and time— months, even. His hams can take years to cure. Most people don’t have time for that. Benton wouldn’t have it any other way. He cures hams and bacon the way our grandparent’s grandparents did it. Modern progress over time is good in many areas of life, in the bacon and ham business, there is no modern method that will ever best the tried and true methods of smoke, salt, sugar, and time.
1 lb Bacon, thick-sliced, diced
2 cups Onion, diced
1 cup Red bell pepper, diced
1 tsp Garlic, minced
5 ounces Spinach, frozen, thawed and dried well
1 cup Half and half
1 tsp Worcestershire sauce
1 tsp Dry mustard
1 tsp Salt
1 tsp Creole Seasoning
1 tsp Black pepper
1 recipe of biscuits, crumbled by hand (eyeball the amount, you might want to use less. make sure the mixture is still wet and all of the eggs aren’t absorbed by the bread)
2 cups Swiss cheese, shredded
In a large skillet, cook bacon until it begins to brown, drain excess fat. Add onion and continue to cook until onion begins to brown. Add red pepper, spinach and garlic and cook two more minutes. Set aside.
In a mixing bowl, combine remaining ingredients and mix well with cooked vegetables.
Place in a buttered two-quart baking dish. Bake for 40-50 minutes. Remove from oven and let rest 15 minutes before serving.
2 ½ cups self-rising flour, cold
1 stick unsalted butter, frozen and shredded on a cheese grater
½ tsp salt
1 cup buttermilk, cold
Preheat oven to 475.
Combine the flour and salt in a large mixing bowl. Work in the cold butter with your hands until well combined. There should still be pieces of butter distributed throughout. Add buttermilk and stir gently until just combined. Do not overmix.
Transfer the biscuit dough to a floured surface. Gently pat the dough to a rectangle about ½ inch thick. Fold the short ends of the rectangle into the middle and repeat this process four times. Cut out the biscuits using a 2 or 2 ½ inch cutter and place them on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. The biscuits should almost be touching each other. Bake until golden brown, about 10-12 minutes.
ROBERT ST. JOHN is a father, husband, restauranteur, chef, author, columnist, world-class eater.