Allan Benton has achieved celebrity status in the world of food, but you wouldn’t know it talking to him. He speaks with that honest to goodness modesty I associate with folks who really grew up in the country.
Benton grew up so far out "you had to look straight up to see daylight", and that’s where he learned the art of curing his now famous bacon and ham.
His birth certificate doesn’t list a city, just Scott County, Virginia. Benton split his childhood between this area of southern Virginia and northern Tennessee where he now operates Benton's Smoky Mountain Country Hams. His parent’s families homesteaded adjoining plots in Virginia, and Benton spent much time there -- learning the art of working the land from his grandparents.
“Do you remember that television show ‘The Waltons’?” he asks. “Well, we made the Waltons look like they lived in town.”
Benton’s grandparents did not own cars or tractors. They walked where they needed to go and worked the land using a mule. They raised heirloom varieties of vegetables because they could not afford to buy seeds. They grew their crops organically because they could not afford to buy commercial fertilizer. And they let their hogs forage for acorns because they could not afford to buy grain.
On Thanksgiving day, they woke before dawn to butcher these 500 to 700 pound hogs -- putting every part to use. "We either canned it, cured it or ground it into sausage," says Benton.
“Looking back now I realize it was the depths of south Appalachian poverty, but it was an incredible way of life,” he says.
He took the lessons he learned there and held them close even as he went on to college and graduate school in Tennessee. After earning his masters in 1973, Benton sat down and looked at the salary schedule for his future as a guidance counselor.
“I realized I might have made a poor career choice,” he says with a laugh.
About this same time and in the same county, Albert Hicks decided to sell his country ham business, and fate took a crucial turn. Benton heard of the sale and took a gamble. He began leasing the primitive operation from Hicks. He amassed information from food science professors, Hicks and his own childhood and began curing pork bellies and hams.
“For the first 20 years I thought we might starve to death,” he says, once again with a laugh.
He remembers that one day his father walked in the store and asked, "How much money do you think you've made this year?"
"I didn't know," says Benton.
His father kept his books at this time and broke it to him, "Well, I can tell you -- you havent’ made a dime!"
At his father's insistence Benton raised his prices, and he eventually moved the operation to where it resides today on Highway 411, still in Monroe County. Here, Benton attracted more customers and gained his Federal Department of Agriculture (FDA) certification.
Finally in the early 90s, Blackberry Farm, a rural Tennessee resort, began using his product, and their chef John Fleer spread the disciple of Benton. Word of his superior bacon and hams soon made its way to celebrity chefs on both coasts, and orders increased to a point that finally gave the Benton family some security.
Now, Benton cures nearly twice as many hams and 20 times as many bellies as he did at the outset. He estimates that 400 restaurants mail order from him -- about 40 of those are in New York City and about 50 are in California.
Benton in his usual modesty credits much of this success to that first support from Fleer and Blackberry Farm. He also credits his forefathers.
"I'm not speeding up the process like a lot of folks," he says. "I don't take to change well."
He continues to use his original family recipe of salt, brown sugar, black and red pepper for any ham aged 12 months or longer -- just as he continues to use a rotary dial phone in his cinderblock storefront.
Benton does admit to one change -- now purchasing exclusively all natural, heritage pork. Over the years he witnessed a drastic transformation in commercially raised hogs as they became leaner and leaner.
"I grew up eating incredible pork," he says. "I knew what pork was supposed to taste like."
Now, he buys the older breeds of hogs that have better marbling and flavor from coops around the country.
"You have to start with something good to make something good," Benton says. And that's his primary aim -- excellence.
"My goal is to make something as good as Europe or anywhere else," he says.
At the Glass Onion we believe Benton achieves his ambition handily. While testing recipes for the cookbook I found results to be drastically different when I substituted another high quality bacon. There is a sweet smokiness to Benton's product that casts a spell over a dish. Benton believes that chefs elevate his products, but we believe that he elevates our food.
We encourage you to order directly from Mr. Benton at:
And look for Mr. Benton's product on our menu at: