Since Allan Benton took over Benton’s Smoky Mountain Country Hams in the seventies, his name has become synonymous with country ham, the cured pig product that is America’s answer to prosciutto. It’s made its way to both restaurant and home kitchens: Benton’s bacon forms the base to Momofuku’s ramen; my South Carolinian friend’s dad buys a ham every Christmas and keeps the leg on his counter for a whole year, throwing slices into pots of greens and onto sandwiches.
Benton is all about the confluence of rural tradition and modern haute cuisine: the self-proclaimed hillbilly cured his first ham in rural Appalachia, dragging slaughtered hogs on a sled for hand-processing. Meat curing began as a way for people to keep precious pig meat good for a year or longer, and Benton’s success lies not so much in his ability to innovate as his commitment to tradition: he still cures his ham with the same spice blend he made as a kid. —Sascha Bos
My family—both sets of grandparents—lived a mile apart in Scott County, Virginia. It was very isolated, rural country, and they raised everything they ate. They were typical hillbillies, living in the depths of southern Appalachian poverty. We would always kill our hogs on Thanksgiving Day, and we would spend all day Thursday, Friday, and Saturday working on that meat. We’d start out by getting up way before daylight, heating spring water in a large iron kettle. We’d take an old sled over to the hog lot and shoot one hog, roll him onto the sled, haul him over, and begin the process of scraping the hog. We’d take burlap bags and lay them over the hog—we didn’t even have a vat to dip them in. We’d pour that hot water through, scrape the hogs, and then begin the process of gutting them and getting all the entrails out, and cutting the meat up. We did that one by one with those hogs until we had cleaned up the rest of them and could start working on the meat.
We’d spend all day grinding the sausage with a hand crank. We used spices from our grandparents’ garden—sage and red pepper—to season the sausage. After we cooked the patties with a little hot grease, we’d put them in fruit jars, seal them good and tight, and turn them upside down. The sausage would keep for years in those fruit jars like that. We would salt down the parts of the hog that we were going to cure—the hams and the bellies, and sometimes the shoulder or jowl. We’d use a mixture of salt and brown sugar or straight salt, depending on which set of grandparents we were with. My maternal grandparents would use straight salt to cure the pork. My dad’s parents used salt and brown sugar. I still use the original family recipe on all the hams that I’m going to age for a year or longer: salt, brown sugar, and red pepper. It’s a very simple process, but we’ve never changed it. I guess I’m too dumb to change.
I realized pretty early on how important it was to use good pork. My grandparents were poor and didn’t have a lot of flat ground to raise the grain to feed those hogs. So in the fall, around August, they turned their hogs loose into the fields and let them feed on acorns. That made an incredible finished hog, similar to jamón Ibérico. My grandparents would raise five-, six-, seven-hundred-pound hogs with lots of fat and marble. It was incredible, quality pork.
When I got into the business, I tried to find the best fresh pork, because I knew how important it was. In the good old days, I bought most everything from the local packing houses—East Tennessee Packing Company and Lay Packing Company, which operated in Knoxville, just thirty-five minutes up the road. The pork was extremely good. And then I realized that some of the pork I was buying from the local packing houses wasn’t the same quality I had been used to. So now we buy our pork from small farmers across the country—old breed hogs like Berkshire, Tamworth, Duroc. I got really into that, ironically enough, on a trip to New York City. I met a fellow by the name of Peter Kaminsky, who wrote a book called Pig Perfect. My conversation with Peter was a sort of epiphany for this hillbilly. I came back from New York bent on finding better pork. I knew that if we wanted to make something as good as our European counterparts, we had to start out with the best fresh product.
In 1992 a young chef by the name of John Fleer came to this area to work at Blackberry Farm, which is an extremely high-quality inn right here in Tennessee. John Fleer singlehandedly started spreading the word about my products. John is no longer with Blackberry Farm, but the proprietor, Sam Beall—I owe him a debt of gratitude I couldn’t begin to repay. He still shares my product with chefs all over the country. Without them, I probably wouldn’t be selling hams in a lot of the places I’m selling hams today.
We’re a very small business—miniscule in the scheme of things—but we’re dealing with some of the best chefs in the country. I always say what we’re making is a pretty decent product. But these chefs, their creativity, we owe them a debt of gratitude for using our ham, because they use it in ways this hillbilly can’t relate to. A lot of times they’re using my hams very similarly to the way they would use a European ham.
There’s no secret to anything I’m doing: a tiny bit of knowledge, and a lot of time and patience. People have been making bacon like this for centuries. We don’t try to hurry the process. It takes about five weeks for us to make our bacon. Normally bacon in packing houses is made by injecting it with a brine solution with thousands of little needles. I’m not sure if it’s got salt and sugar, I don’t know what’s all in it. Ours is made by dry-curing. We simply rub a mixture of salt and brown sugar on our fresh pork bellies and leave them salted down in a cooler at about thirty-eight to forty degrees for about ten days or more.
We take them out and wash them, and hang them on wooden racks where they’re rolled into another cooler at anywhere from forty-three degrees up to maybe fifty-five, where they dry for about ten more days, losing moisture. Then we pull them out into the heated space where it’s seventy-five degrees or warmer, and let them age for about ten days. Then we put them into our smokehouse, where it’s a very intense smoke for three or more days. And we’ve got bacon. Our hickory-smoked bacon, most people either love it or they don’t like it at all. It’s an intense-flavored bacon—it has a very pronounced smoke flavor. If they don’t like smoke, they’re certainly not going to like our bacon. We actually burn the hickory wood—we don’t use smolder or sawdust.
The process for country hams is similar. We bring them in large boxes that’ll typically hold maybe a hundred hams each. And we put them in curers using the traditional family recipe—salt, brown sugar, and red pepper. We rub the cure on the hams and stack them on curing shelves, where they’re left for about a week. Then we’ll take them out and rework the cure into them and add a little more cure, too. We restack them and they stay in those curing coolers at thirty-eight to forty degrees for around two months. We take them out of the cooler and put them in stock and then shake them down to shape them up into a prettier ham, and hang them in another cooler at about forty-three to fifty-five degrees. They hang in that cooler for about two more months. And then we take them out into the heated space, where they age for up to two years.
There’s times I’m tempted to grow the business a lot more, but I have this desperate fear that if I grow it too fast or too much, I might lose the handle on the quality. I have to tell you: I struggled probably the first twenty-five years I was in business. There were times I’d lay awake at night wondering how much longer I could hold it together. In the early days—I’d probably been in business seven or eight years—I had a conversation with my father. I said, I think I’m going to have to cure the hams quicker in order to compete. And he sat there for a minute. 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.