FOLKLIFE HERITAGE AWARD, 2017 GOVERNOR’S ARTS AWARDS
The owner of Benton’s Smoky Mountain Country Hams in Madisonville, Allan Benton has honed the dry curing of hams and bacon into a culinary art, catapulting the products from a breakfast mainstay into the world of gourmet cooking. In 1973 Benton took over a business started by Albert Hicks in 1947, a dairy farmer who cured and sold country hams out of a painted block building. Benton relies on age-old methods to produce some of the finest country ham and bacon in the nation.
Benton began life as a farm boy on his grandparents’ land in Scott County, Virginia. Benton is a graduate of the University of Tennessee and received his master’s degree from Middle Tennessee State University. He spent one-year teaching school in Florida before moving back to Madisonville to become a guidance counselor at Vonore High School. After examining his paycheck, Benton realized he needed another way to support his family. He returned to the business that had sustained his people for years in the Appalachian Mountains.
Benton has been curing over 12,000 hams a year for over 40 years. He uses traditional techniques passed down to him by his parents and grandparents. The hams are slowly cured through several stages and temperatures for at least nine months before they are sold. He uses the same cure his father did in the smokehouse behind his childhood home—a family recipe consisting of salt, brown sugar and pepper. Benton hangs pigs’ legs from wooden racks until the time is right, anywhere from 14 to 24 months for the aged hams. Country ham is a simpler recipe and a shorter cure. Bacon bellies are smoked for three to four days.
Benton received the Southern Foodways Alliance 2007 Jack Daniel Lifetime Achievement Award. Benton’s ham and bacon products have been featured in Southern Living, Gourmet, Saveur and Esquire magazines. He has been described by Saveur as “one of the most respected producers in the United States.” Benton’s hams and bacon have become the standard against which all others are measured and are sought after by top chefs like Sean Brock, David Chang, and Hugh Acheson. In 2015 Benton was awarded the James Beard Foundation’s “Who’s Who of Food and Beverage in America” Award, given to those in the food industry who have contributed to America’s culinary scene.
Using his artistry, expertise and devoted adherence to old traditional methods in one of Tennessee’s renowned foodways traditions, Benton’s Country Hams truly reflect the diversity and depth of Tennessee’s heritage. Those who would like to incorporate a few pounds of bacon into their pantry or want a whole country ham of their own would be wise to plan on ordering in advance. Benton owns the distinction of being the first foodways recipient in the history of the Tennessee Governor’s Arts Awards.
Video footage courtesy of the TN Department of Economic and Community Development; Voice-over by Sandra Harris; Editing by Christie Caldwell; Directed by Suzanne Lynch