The Church of Allan Benton

A country boy from Madisonville, TN, ascends to the porcine firmament.

A couple days ago, I received this text message from a friend: “At PDT in NYC drinking a Benton’s old-fashioned. Yes, it’s infused with our man’s bacon…”

Among food and drink geeks, the bacon-infused old-fashioned served at PDT, an East Village bar accessible by way of a phone booth entrance, is, well, old news. What’s new news is the provenance of the bacon: Benton’s, the pride of Madisonville, Tennessee.

A few years back, I was lucky enough to write a story, for the print edition of Gourmet, about Allan Benton, proprietor and curer-in-chief of Benton’s Smoky Mountain Country Hams. Allan and I, along with his wife, Sharon, traveled to New York City to draw a bead on how Manhattan chefs were using his ham and bacon.

We went to Momofuku Noodle Bar, back when there was just one David Chang restaurant. I watched as the chefs genuflected and Allan, ever humble, deflected all praise. I joined Allan and Sharon at Craft, as Damon Wise laid out a feast, highlighted by scallops in a Benton’s ham consommé.

Allan has since been recognized, rightly, as the go-to curer for chefs across the country. I’ve seen his ham trumpeted on Tom Douglas’s menus in Seattle. I’ve eaten Sean Brock’s cotton candy, spun from Benton’s bacon, at McCrady’s in Charleston, SC.

I’ve seen his bacon featured by the two leading bacon club companies, Grateful Palate and Zingerman’s. I’ve seen how, among a pork-centric populace, the name Allan Benton has earned a status equivalent to Bill Niman.

Meanwhile, the press has gone gaga. Saveur wrote a rave. So did Southern Living. And a dozen or so newspapers. And a good gross of blogs.

For a while, Allan had to suspend shipping so that he could keep up with production. He’s since added capacity and, without boosting prices, improved his sourcing.

And the Benton’s acolyte express rolls on. Last week, I took a seat at Clementine in Los Angeles on Santa Monica Boulevard, and as the traffic rushed by, I ate a diminutive biscuit, stuffed with ribbons of Benton’s ham. (Proprietor Annie Miller was actually one of the first Benton’s adopters; her brother-in-law, chef John Fleer, introduced her.)

Just the other day, I read a New York Times blog report about a meal at Hugh Acheson’s The National, in Athens, GA. One of the objects of the writer’s affection was an empanada stuffed with Benton’s Tennessee prosciutto, Spanish cheddar, and scallions.

Those encounters reminded me to take a second look at a recipe that Allan shared with me a while back. It’s his take on red-eye gravy. And it’s as straightforward as the man himself, as honest as the cured pork that emerges from his smokehouse.

Benton’s Red-Eye Gravy

Makes about 1/2 cup, or 2 servings

2 slices country ham, about 1/4-inch thick
1 teaspoon vegetable oil, as needed
1/2 cup fresh, hot coffee, divided
1 tablespoon firmly packed brown sugar
Hot biscuits, for sopping

Trim the fat from the ham slices. Put the fat in a large cast-iron skillet and set the ham aside. Cook the fat over medium heat until it renders, about 3 minutes. (If there isn’t much rendered fat, add the vegetable oil.)

Pour 1/4 cup of the coffee into the skillet. Add the brown sugar and stir until melted. Place the ham slices on top and cover the skillet with a lid. Cook over medium heat until wisps of steam come out from under the lid, then remove the lid and lightly brown the ham.

Transfer the ham to a warm plate and keep warm. Discard any remaining pieces of fat. Add the remaining 1/4 cup of coffee. Increase the heat to medium-high, and cook, stirring up from the bottom, until the gravy comes together and cooks down a little, about 1 to 2 minutes. Serve hot with the ham slices, as well as biscuits for sopping.

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