This is a story about pork. More to the point, this is a story about Allan Benton of Madisonville, Tennessee, a pork man who, cleaving to the ways of his forebears and working with salt and smoke, transforms haunches and bellies into ham and bacon that many chefs consider to be some of America’s best.
Along with his wife, Sharon, Allan has come to New York City to meet the people who, until now, have been mere voices on the phone, ordering bacon flanks and teardrop hams. Over the course of a week, Allan—an elastic smile teasing his lips, a cooler of bacon and ham samples slung over his shoulder—will crisscross the city, from the Lower East Side to Union Square, from Times Square to the Upper West Side.
No matter where he goes, no matter whom he meets, the 59-year-old brooks no strangers. At table, Allan Benton charms New York. And New York charms him.
David Chang of Momofuku, the iconoclastic ramen and small plates bar, is a stalwart. He has been using Allan’s bacon and ham since January 2005. When Allan and Sharon arrive, Chang beams. He genuflects. He stands tall by the stove and dishes a soup of cockles in a ham broth. He whisks a ham-skin-scented dashi into a pan of yellow grits, then tops them with a poached egg, crescents of ruby shrimp, and a thatch of crisp chopped bacon. And as Allan and Sharon fold their napkins, Chang exits the galley kitchen and joins them at the counter.
Allan, who has the countenance and intellect of a presidentialera Jimmy Carter, ducks his head and grins. He snags an afterthought of bacon with his chopsticks and drags it through a puddle of yolk. “I had no idea what you were doing with my bacon and ham,” he says, his face twisting upward, the corners of his mouth gone vertical. “This is amazing, just amazing, especially for a purebred Tennessee hillbilly.”
Chang accepts the compliments. But the 29-year-old Korean-American chef rejects the self-deprecation. “You’re a hero to us,” he says. “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 handprints on the box. We know that the person who packed our box trimmed our ham. And now we get to meet you. Now we get to cook for you.”
Lunch at Momofuku sets a pattern that plays something like this: Allan and Sharon take seats. A chef bows deeply. A chef cooks his heart out. Allan asks smart questions and beams. And Sharon snaps a picture for posterity. That’s how it works at Bobby Flay’s Bar Americain, in midtown, where chef Neil Manacle serves a lunchtime triptych of silky Allan Benton ham—tucked in buttermilk biscuits, layered with fresh mozzarella, mixed with mango salad—and Sharon gets a shot of Allan holding the ham platter high.
There are, however, diversions. To the Metropolitan Museum of Art. To Zabar’s, the Upper West Side fresser’s emporium. To Del Posto, the Batali-Bastianich bordello, where Allan and Sharon sample goose prosciutto, lardo, and testa on a bed of chard. To Salumeria Biellese, where proprietor Marc Buzzio, recognizing a fellow brother in bond, lines platters with speck and coppa, soppressata and mortadella; pours glasses of inky red wine; talks Tamworth versus Berkshire hogs; and with a rhetorical flourish queries Allan about whether it’s better to rub hams down with molasses, as is the custom in Tennessee, or with a poultice of lard, as they do in Italy’s Piedmont region.
And there are detours that qualify as busman’s holidays. At R.U.B., a hipster Chelsea barbecue restaurant, Josh Ozersky, a friend of the house who calls himself Mr. Cutlets, begs for a critique from the Tennessee master. “This is good, really good,” Allan says, tasting pitmaster Scott Smith’s first cured pork belly. “I wouldn’t change a thing.” A three-beat pause follows. And then a kindly coup de grâce: “You’ve got nitrates in here, don’t you? Scott, son, you might want to think about cutting those out. You really don’t need those chemicals. Salt and smoke will do,” says the man who, at times, has had to bow to regulatory pressure and use the stuff himself.
But mostly there are meals. Accompanied by flights of wine. Followed by petits fours. And always perfumed by cured pork. Until Allan made this journey, chefs were either visiting acolytes introduced by John Fleer of Blackberry Farm, the nearby luxury retreat, or, more likely, converts like David Chang, who cadged Allan’s phone number from a competitor. And that was fine, until now. This year, as demand for his bacon and ham has soared, Allan—a onetime high-school guidance counselor who believes good relationships are built on firm handshakes and unwavering eye contact—has struggled to gain perspective while continuing to answer requests for catalogs as he always has, with a roster of goods scratched on a yellow legal pad. Drop-ins by chefs have mounted, and Allan never knows who might walk through the door of his smokehouse, the one with “We Cure ‘Em” emblazoned on the side. And after Linton Hopkins of Restaurant Eugene, in Atlanta, debuted a raft of Allan-inspired creations, including a toasted-corn soup spiked with a scallion purée and garnished with bacon, the two find themselves deep in conversation about sourcing heritage breeds of pork, intent on crafting the cured jowls of their dreams. “It just stands to reason,” says Allan, who has, until recently, bought nothing but midwestern feedlot pork. “You tell me I can get a better grade of pork, I’ll buy it. Think about it this way: If I were a fine cabinetmaker, I wouldn’t want to work with number two pine.”
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