From the Schoolhouse to the Smokehouse

In the HBO series Treme, Janette Desautel is a struggling chef in post-Katrina New Orleans. When four real-life, five-star chefs come to her restaurant without reservations, she doesn’t panic—she brings out the Benton’s bacon. “I sprinkle that stuff on my breakfast cereal,” she says.

Allan Benton’s bacon and country hams have become the stuff of legend. And not only in the foodie world—it has seeped into pop culture, as well. Stories about Benton and his products have appeared in a documentary called Cured, as well as magazines such as Southern Living and Gourmet. In 2009, Esquire named Benton’s bacon “the world’s best.”

Five-star chefs around the country covet the products that Benton lovingly creates in an unassuming building on Highway 411 in Madisonville, Tennessee. His meats are used in creations ranging from cocktails to cotton candy.

Just like his building, Benton himself is quite unassuming. His is the story of a “hillbilly,” as he calls himself, raised in the mountains of Scott County, Virginia. His family farmed for a living, raising the food they needed to survive—including pigs, which were later cured right on the farm.

A rack of bacon is placed in the smokehouse.

A rack of bacon is placed in the smokehouse. Photos by Jack Parker

After moving with his family to East Tennessee, Benton came to UT and received a Bachelor of Science degree in education from the College of Education.

He worked as a guidance counselor before returning to his farm roots and buying a local meat curing business. Dairy farmer Albert Hicks was selling the business he had opened in 1947. Benton purchased it and has been curing hams and making bacon for nearly forty years.

But his success didn’t come without bumps in the road. Benton knew he needed a helping hand to make his product the best it could be. So, he called on experts at his alma mater, and was never disappointed with their help.

“I’m not sure we would’ve survived without UT,” Benton says. “I went to them with my problems and they helped. I have never gone to UT that someone didn’t help me out.”

In turn, Benton has used his knowledge to help others in the business and to mentor and teach employees like Samuel Cunningham, who came to work with Benton a few years ago. He had never cured meats when he landed a job at Benton’s. Now, Sam is working as an apprentice, learning everything about the meat curing business from Benton himself.

A worker begins the process of curing a ham.

A worker begins the process of curing a ham.

“I didn’t know anything about ham and bacon until I came here,” Cunningham says. “I’ve learned a lot, and I’m still learning. I couldn’t ask for a better teacher, mentor, supervisor, or friend than Allan.”

The young meat curer says Benton takes time out to help him do things, and even stops what he’s doing to help. But it’s not all about learning the meat business.

“He’s helped me with my people skills and in building more confidence to talk to customers and let them know about the business,” Cunningham says.

Throughout the years, others in the meat curing business have come to Benton with questions about problems they have encountered in the curing process. Benton says he’s always more than happy to help in any way he can. If he doesn’t know the answer to a question or a solution to a curing problem, Benton writes to the experts at UT who have helped him along the way.

Finding a niche

There were times when Benton says that he thought he would have to change his own process and begin quick curing hams and selling them, just to stay in business. Benton turned to his father, who gave him a sage piece of advice that proved key to his success:

“Stick with what you know. If you play the other guy’s game, you’ll lose every time.”

So, Benton stuck with what he knew—curing hams over a long period of time. Word began to spread of his products through John Fleer, who at the time was a chef for Blackberry Farm—a luxury resort in East Tennessee. In 2002, Benton was invited to Oxford, Mississippi, to a culinary event where he gave out samples of his products to chefs from all over the country.

The response was overwhelming. Benton served up fried country ham until the wee hours of the morning, and it changed the way he did business.

“I had an epiphany moment,” Benton says. “I came back and told my employees that we were not going to sell hams until they were more than a year old and we were going to start selling to five-star restaurants.” Benton cut down on local sales—sticking only with a few customers who had been with him since the beginning—and now focuses his efforts on the world of gourmet restaurants. Today, Benton has a hard time keeping up with the demand. His bacon and hams can be found in restaurants like Charleston, South Carolina’s Husk, which is run by James Beard Award-winner and fellow Southwest Virginia native Sean Brock, who pays Benton the compliment of using his product quite regularly in dishes ranging from cornbread to cotton candy.

While Benton says that any compliment is good, the fact that people take time out of their busy schedules to visit him in Madisonville is the best compliment of all.

“I’m just fabulously lucky that people like what I do,” he says.

Rising tide

Though Benton’s career took an unexpected path, he still touts the importance of education to anyone who will listen. He is an advocate for education and his beloved UT, and isn’t shy about telling everyone, from legislators to the governor, that heavy cuts shouldn’t be dealt to higher education.

“Education is the ticket to success,” says Benton, who obviously instilled that value into his children, all of whom are in the medical field. “They want to cure anything but ham and bacon,” he told Esquire.
Benton credits his experience at the college with teaching him how to think and giving him the skills he needed to be successful in business and life.

“Education is like a rising tide—it carries everything up with it.”

4 Comments on “From the Schoolhouse to the Smokehouse

  1. I celebrated a birthday with friends tonight at Dancing Bear Lodge in Townsend and noticed that one starter and two of six entrees included either Allan Benton country ham or bacon. Last summer while eating out in Portland, Oregon there was Benton’s ham as an ingredient on the menu. I was thrilled to see it. I met Allan 17 years ago when I wrote his story for a UT publication. Now, every time I walk in the door of his humble shop in Madisonville, he treats me like a long lost neighbor. Why? Because that’s just part of who he is. You want to do business with him. He stands on his word. His products are second to none. This guy dispells the notion that nice guys finish last. He is a chef’s best friend. When her customer can’t quite identify what it is that kicks up his dish, chances are it’s Benton’s ham or bacon – just like his smoked bacon that pushed my tomato soup from being good to sublime at the Dancing Bear tonight. Kudos Allan!

    • Allan,
      I knew and know you mom and dad. I was at Hiwassee college in 1961-1963. I now live on Mississippi and my wife is a friend of Robert st . John. My brother is Clarence McCall and I just received an email from friends at Hiwassee about you and wanted to say hello and that. I saw the article. I feel very privileged to have had known and still know your family Your mom is a very special lady to me.

      Good luck and continued success.

      Morris McCall

      Tell your mom hello.

    • I met Allan and his sweet wife at Blackberry Farm upon one of my first of several visits about 14 years ago. BBF decided to incorporate him into one of their first Chef/Winemaker dinners of which they now have become famous. At the time his name and product was not “out there.” Humbled and still the same he was shocked we were so excited about his unknown product., We, along with Allan, Chef Fleer, Dan Phillips, and a few others shared an amazing day and night. Dancing Bear Lodge is a sister property to Blackberry Farm and Chef Carter does an excellent job of highlighting Benton Bacon on the menu. Located about 10 minutes from Walland in Townsend, it is worth the trip. If reading this you are invited to a tribute dinner in Asheville , NC . I attend the last set up by Denny Trantham ( former Ex. Chef -Grove Park Inn), whio has set up this one as well! It is worth every last bite. http://www.citizen-times.com/article/20130228/ashevillescene/302280065/downtown-asheville-restaurants-host-special-dinners?odyssey=mod%7Cnewswell%7Ctext%7Casheville+scene%7Cp

  2. Allan is definitely a teacher!
    I wanted to learn how to make Prosciutto, and he took time out of his busy schedule
    to explain the basics to me. What a passionate craftsman!

    Thank you Professor Benton!