Editor's Note: We were planning to publish this article today, even before we read the pulse-quickening news that the smokehouse at Benton's Country Hams caught fire briefly Tuesday night. Allan Benton told The Huffington Post that although this is the first fire they've had to contend with at the smokehouse, the damage was minimal and shouldn't result in more than a "small hiccup" in bacon production. "Like the death of Mark Twain," Benton assured us, "media reports on this fire have been greatly exaggerated." Benton expects that the original smokehouse will be repaired by late next week, and their second smokehouse, which is part of a small expansion they are already in the midst of building, should be up and running within a few months. You may now breathe your collective sigh of relief and read the rest of this article.
I am not the first person to weigh the question, "Is Allan Benton earth's nicest man?" I will definitely not be the last. Because he probably met some people today and they had to ask themselves the same question, while they also struggled with whether or not they'd even try to wash the bacon smell out of the shirt they were wearing when they walked into Benton's Country Hams, in North Madisonville, Tennessee.
Benton didn't set out to make the world's best bacons and hams, he just set out to do them the way his family always did. He uses the same cure his father did in the smokehouse behind his childhood home. Mr. Benton does a convincing job of looking genuinely bewildered that anyone outside Tennessee has ever heard of his product, but his knowing smile gives him away. He's eaten it. He knows. It's the reason he still makes it the same way. It's just GREAT.
Getting to tour Benton's smoking and curing facilities was a lesson in perspective. It was more pork than I had ever seen in one place before, there were more bellies and hams curing than I could comprehend all at once. But Benton's has made a commitment to keeping the business small, in the family and consistent with the tradition that Allan has set in place. They make as much as they can make they right way -- not a single ham more. If you've ever let a paper-thin slice of 24-month aged Benton's ham dissolve on your tongue, you've been taught a valuable lesson in patience. The ham makes you willing to wait. The beautiful video below, "Benton Family Cure" by Jennifer Davick, captures exactly what it feels like inside Benton's Country Hams.
There is smoke, there are jokes and there is the omnipresent ring of the rotary telephone that Benton still uses. If you ask him a serious question, he is likely to tell you a joke. One of the members of our tour asked Allan how they keep the smokehouse temperature consistent in the hot Tennessee summer. "Well, we run the smoke over ice," he said, with an uncharacteristically straight face, which lasted about three seconds. He dissolved into laughter and said, "No, we don't. My father told me that if you want to be good at something, you have to practice every day. So I practice lying just a little bit every day."
You can get product and contact info on Benton's Country Ham's website.