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Wednesday, May 9, 2007 12:57 pm

Hog heaven

A visit to the high temple of porkdom

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Untitled Document I have been to the mountaintop. The sanctuary of smoke. The high temple of porkdom. From the outside, it doesn’t look like a place of pilgrimage. The modest cinderblock structure, located about 40 minutes south of Knoxville, Tenn., is a bit dingy. There’s a sign painted on the outside: “BENTON’S COUNTRY HAMS. WE CURE ’EM.” A set of prefab concrete steps with a railing so rough that anyone sliding a hand along it is sure to get splinters leads to a porch with an aging wooden bench and a battered aluminum screen door. A clutter of papers is visible in the window to the left. Inside, the first sight is an ancient refrigerated case with a mundane selection of cold cuts, cheeses, and a couple of cartons of brown eggs. Jars of honey, sorghum, and molasses sit on top, and a small table to the side holds bags of white cornmeal. A chest freezer stands by the cash register. Once you’re inside, however, the reason for all the publicity, attention, and accolades becomes clear: It’s the smell. I’d first smelled that aroma months before. Actually, my husband, Peter, smelled it first. We’d ordered an assortment of Benton products — ham, bacon, and (unsmoked) prosciutto — and had it delivered to Peter’s dental office. When it came, the insulated box was placed on the staff’s break-room table. Within minutes Peter, working in a room at the opposite corner of the building, through two closed doors, lifted his head and sniffed, then shouted, “The Benton order’s here!”
Allan Benton started selling hams and bacon in 1973, taking over a business established in 1947. The former high-school guidance counselor wanted to make ham and bacon the way in which he remembered his grandparents doing it. The fresh pork comes from small farmers who don’t use prophylactic antibiotics or growth hormones. Most commercial bacon is processed in as little as a day — first injected with brine and chemicals, then flashed-smoked. Commercial ham is also injected with chemicals and water (water’s usually the first ingredient listed after pork) and similarly processed. At Benton’s, sides of fresh bacon are first dry-rubbed with salt and brown sugar in a 25-year-old maple box handmade by Benton and his father. (Maple is preferred because it’s hard, doesn’t splinter, and is low in acid.) No nitrates are used in the bacon, though regulations have required their use in some of the ham products. They’re left to rest for six weeks, first in a 38-degree cooler, next in a 45 degree one, and finally in an aging room. They’re then smoked for as long 48 hours in the smoking room, which is equipped with an old wood-burning stove. The smoked hams go through a similar process, though they’re aged for almost a year. Benton also makes cured unsmoked hams and has recently begun making prosciutto (an uncured Italian-style ham), which is aged for 14 months.
I’m not exaggerating when I say that Benton and his hams, prosciutto, and bacon have attained iconic status among chefs and gourmets around the country. A recent article in Gourmet magazine chronicled Benton’s first visit to the Big Apple. Top New York chefs had been using his products for some time, learning of them by word of mouth, but, except for a few who’d made the trip to Tennessee, most had never met him. From Bobby Flay’s Bar Americain to trendy barbecue joints in Chelsea, to some of the hautest of haute cuisine restaurants, chefs asked his advice and plied him and his wife, Sharon, with some of their most creative dishes that incorporated his products: grits made with ham-skin-scented dashi broth, topped with poached egg, ruby shrimp, and crisp bacon; toasted-corn soup drizzled with scallion purée and topped with bacon; housemade pasta with fresh peas and ham; and seared diver scallops surrounded by ham consommé. David Chang, who was named by Food and Wine magazine one of the Best New Chefs of 2006 and whose tiny restaurant Momofuku is one of the hottest NYC dining destinations, actually genuflected when Benton arrived. For Benton, who describes his operation as a “hole in the wall” business and himself as a “purebred Tennessee hillbilly,” it was “amazing, just amazing. I had no idea what [they] were doing with my bacon and ham.” Chang told Benton, “Your stuff is the ultimate old-school product. We can smell the work you put into it. Sometimes, when you ship us a ham, we can see the handprints on the box.”
As good as those elaborate creations are (I first had Benton ham at Momofuku), to fully appreciate Benton products you should first sample them on their own. I’ve never really liked country ham — most has been much too salty for my taste — but Benton’s is an exception. It’s slightly salty, though no more so than commercial ham, and the porky flavor is intense, something to be enjoyed in thin slices rather than thick slabs. The bacon is incredible — thick slices heavily streaked with mahogany red meat and redolent of hickory. Then there’s that prosciutto. I feel like a heretic, but I have honestly never, ever had better — not even from the two leading Italian areas, Parma and San Daniele. Benton is a modest, even self-deprecating man who looks a bit like Jimmy Carter. During our visit, he was variously working in the cluttered business office, moving the wooden racks of hanging hams or sides of bacon from room to room, and even at one point sweeping the floor, smiling shyly in our direction as his genial brother-in-law (who left his engineering job to join the family business) gave us a tour. There are no reprints of the highly complimentary articles recently published in Gourmet and Saveur magazines on the walls amid the old calendars, notices, and posters that decorate the front room. Any other artisanal producer would have them prominently displayed, but it’s clear that Benton doesn’t need such external gratification.
There are many other producers of wonderful artisanal bacons and hams. Among the most highly regarded is Nueske’s, in Wisconsin. There’s even a Bacon of the Month Club with a (pricey) monthly selection of artisanal bacons. Locally, Stan Schutte of Triple S Farms offers excellent bacon (plain and pepper) and smoked pork chops made from his own naturally raised hogs on Wednesdays at the farmers’ market. (He also has a buyers’ club that delivers monthly to the Springfield area.) Benton’s has a thriving mail-order business but has recently been so beset by orders that there’s a two-month backlog, so order now if you want some world-class bacon to go with those luscious tomatoes that will start showing up in July or prosciutto to wrap around slices of succulent melon.
For information about Benton’s Smoky Mountain Country Hams, go to bentonshams.com or call 423-442-5003. To contact Nueske’s, go to nueskes.com or call 800-392-2266. Information about the Bacon of the Month Club can be found at gratefulpalate.com. To contact Triple S Farms, write to triplsfarm@rr1.net or call 217-895-3652. 

Send questions and comments to Julianne Glatz at realcuisine@insightbb.com.
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