Each year, America’s chefs adopt a multitude of new products. Public relations campaigns herald many. Others rely on endorsement kickbacks, trade-show tie-ins, and glossy-magazine play. Allan Benton, on the other hand, has won a place on America’s damask-swathed tables through unimpeachably good products, unsolicited chef endorsements, and country-bred charm. He delivers his message with an earnestness that rocks you back on your heels. Ask him about his business and he’ll tell you about Albert Hicks, the man who founded the company, the man Allan bought out in 1973. Ask him about technique and he’ll talk of the maple salt box he and his father crafted, about the dehumidifier he jury-rigged to draw additional moisture from his hams, and about the rub of salt, brown sugar, red pepper, and black pepper he carefully applies to each one.
Press Allan for a trick of the trade and he’ll tell you: “The secret is that there’s no secret. Just long hours and patience.” Tell him you admire his handiwork and he’ll invite you to visit Madisonville, where, in a humble block building perched on the cusp of the Great Smoky Mountains, pork makes its leap toward immortality. Hesitate and he’ll tell you that he has a guest bedroom ready for you.
After 30-plus years in the business, Allan Benton’s reputation is won, his legacy secure. Allan doesn’t require a visit to New York to bolster his spirits or his business. But he has long been curious about what happens to his pork when he boxes it up, bound for New York City and points beyond. Hence this trip, this “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town” sort of week.
Damon Wise, chef de cuisine of Craft, the seasonally focused Flatiron District restaurant with the precisely categorized menu, knows what Allan seeks. Wise is an unabashed fan who, when Allan and Sharon visit, tries to convey his passion for their products, but words fail. So Wise retreats to the kitchen. To prove his point and sate Allan’s curiosity, he lets fly with an eight-course pork-centric menu, highlighted by housemade cavatelli with green peas and spirals of Allan’s country ham, not to mention roasted sweetbreads awash in bacon sabayon and gilded with green-tomato marmalade.
Allan takes it all in stride. He marvels at the sommelier’s selections. He savors the interplay of squab and chanterelles. But when he tastes Wise’s diver scallops surrounded by a moat of bacon consommé, he pauses before dipping his spoon back into the bowl. “At home, most people fry our bacon and ham in a skillet,” he says, a shy smile spreading across his face. “That’s the way I usually like it. But this is humbling. This does me—and the pig—proud.”
Benton’s Smoky Mountain Country Hams
2603 Highway 411 N.
Madisonville, TN 37354