Benton's country hams smokes its way to national recognition

Benton's country hams in Madisonville smokes its way to national recognition

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"We will never get away from selling it right out the front door. That is how we started," Allan Benton said. "We will never get away from selling it right out the front door. That is how we started," Allan Benton said.
Each ham is coated with salt, brown sugar and red pepper. Each ham is coated with salt, brown sugar and red pepper.
The hams are bagged for several days and then cured for at least another two months. The hams are bagged for several days and then cured for at least another two months.
The bacon is cured, then dried for about five weeks and smoked for three days using local hickory and apple wood. The bacon is cured, then dried for about five weeks and smoked for three days using local hickory and apple wood.

By KRISTIN FARLEY
6 News Anchor/Reporter

MADISONVILLE (WATE) - Benton's Smoky Mountain Country Hams in Madisonville has built a national customer base while staying true to a time-honored tradition.

Albert Hicks started the business in 1947. Allan Benton took it over in 1973. You can still find Benton waiting on his local customers almost every day.

The business first appears to be a small, understated country store at 2603 Highway 411. "We will never get away from selling it right out the front door. That is how we started," Benton said.

Benton now ships to people all over the country. He credits a relationship with a relatively new restaurant more than 20 years ago for changing everything. The place was Blackberry Farm, a luxury resort in Walland, and the chef was John Fleer.

"He wanted to develop a menu around the items I had brought him, and I was flattered. Then he asked me would it be okay to put my name on his menu? No one had put my name on a menu at that time."

"The best chefs in America come there, and they share my products with them. Then when they go home, my phone is ringing saying can you sell us those things?" Benton said.

A family curing recipe and patience are what make Benton's hams and bacon so special.

While others have found ways to mass produce pork on short time frames, Benton still uses a tried and true method likely used by many of our ancestors.

6 News watched as each ham is coated with salt, brown sugar and red pepper. The hams are re-coated in about a week, then stacked in a curing room at approximately 38 degrees for nearly two months.

But the aging process does not stop there. The hams are then moved into another room where they are hung from stainless steel hooks. They are bagged for several days and then cured for at least another two months. 

"It goes back to the chefs. Some want a 14-month ham. Some chefs want a 24, 25, or 26-month-old ham. And we sell the gauntlet depending on what they are looking for and what they need. So much of our growth has been to high end restaurants across the country," Benton said.

As we toured the business, Benton told how his popularity continued to grow after a Southern food symposium. 

Against his wishes, he says he was asked to bring his ham and bacon products and prepare them as well. 

"I told him really quickly, look I'm just a hillbilly. I am not a chef. I make country hams and bacon, and I simply can't serve this to those chefs," Benton said.

In the end he did serve those chefs, and he thinks he made quite an impression. "To this day I will never know if it was as good as those folks said because Jack Daniels catered the event and it was flowing freely," he said with a chuckle.

Benton says he now gets the most orders from chefs in California, where he even managed to convert a vegetarian on a trip to the West Coast.

"She looked at me and said, 'I just ate a piece of your bacon.' There was a lady with her and she says she had been friends with her since fourth grade and never known her to taste meat in her life. Now the lady calls herself the bacon girl," he said.

Many people only call on Benton for his renowned bacon. It is cured, then dried for about five weeks and smoked for three days using local hickory and apple wood. 

Benton is also very specific about what kind of hogs he uses, saying old breed heritage hogs have a lot more fat and marbling.

It's clear the business comes down to one thing for Benton. "Quality is the bottom line here in both ham and our bacon. We want to make the best we know how to make, something that is as good as what they do in Europe or anywhere else."

Benton says he's been approached by several large grocery store chains that want to sell his products, but he refuses to expand at the risk of losing the quality he's known for.

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