2007 Lifetime Achievement Award: Allan Benton
He began his life as a farm boy, informed by the traditional ways of life on his grandparents’ land in Scott County, Virginia. It would be some time before the smell and the taste of the farm would inform his craft.
Allan Benton began his working life as a high school guidance counselor. In 1973, he took over a ham business that Albert Hicks had started in 1947. Almost thirty-five years later, by upholding traditional techniques learned from previous generations, Allan Benton continues to produce some of the finest country ham and bacon in the country.
He has satisfied the cravings of food lovers for the magic tonic of pork, salt, smoke and time. He has linked chefs around the country to traditional foodways and inspired them to elicit flavors that Allan, himself, might never have imagined. In the face of traditional European cured hams, Allan has cured many a case of porcine envy by way of his long-cured Tennessee prosciutto.
Dry-cured country ham, created through traditional salt curing, smoking, and aging, lies at the bedrock of Southern foodways. Allan began by selling this traditional staple to his neighbors in the region, delivering from the bed of a covered pick-up. With the renaissance of Southern restaurants in the 1980s and 1990s, Allan’s ham and bacon were recognized for their world-class quality. Soon, the news spread to territories beyond what the pickup could handle. It was a difficult pill to swallow for the old farm boy, but Allan acknowledged that chefs and food lovers were willing to pay as much or more to have ham and bacon shipped to them as for the products themselves.
Spend a few hours in the block building that serves as both his production facility and his store. The magical elixir of pork, smoke, salt, and pride permeates the concrete walls and floor, the brown sacks and boxes. That block building represents the life of Allan Benton.
The front door opens. It might be a longtime local customer, like “the best concrete man” in Monroe County, dropping by to pick up eggs, bologna, or beef tenderloin. It could be one of the many SFA members whose cars swerve over to Hwy. 411 anytime they are within a hundred miles of Madisonville.
The phone rings. It could be any of scores of devoted chefs from around the South who swear by Benton’s bacon, country ham, and prosciutto. Just as likely, these days, the call could come from New York or Los Angeles, as the best chefs around the country have discovered that this craftsman is capable of rendering bellies and hams ethereal.
Despite these calls from far-flung lands, Allan Benton does not claim to be a man of the world. He is man of a particular place. And that place is Monroe County, Tennessee. In the end, it is clear that Allan is happiest in his ham house, in the hills and hollers of his homeland. Despite claims to be easing up, to be sharing responsibility with his brother-in-law, on any given day, you are most likely to find Allan tending the business and its products.
As Allan has gained a modicum of limelight, he has humbly taken advantage of relationships with his local and national clientele. He has adopted “new” ways. Though Allan always endeavored to choose the best pig for his product, his devotees introduced him to heritage breeds of pork. Of course, when your main product requires a year or more to mature, experimentation takes time. No matter, he now uses as much heritage pork as he can get his hands on. On the other end of the spectrum, as local sustainable hog production has resurrected in East Tennessee, Allan continues to apply his craft to local larder. On the curing room racks, you will now see tags bearing the names of neighbors and local farmers.
Speaking of experimentation, in the last few years, Allan has introduced a couple of computers, a website, and, yes, e-mail into his operations. None of these newfangled things seems to have changed his craft. He uses neither barcodes nor spreadsheets. Telephone calls, handwritten tags, and a cache of taped notes form the nexus of his business. When you walk in the door of Benton’s Country Hams or open the box of your latest shipment, you are struck with not only the magical aroma of pig and smoke, but the spirit of Allan Benton. He has devoted his life to doing a few things exceptionally well. He continues to dedicate his life to his family and his craft.
Along with his wife, Sharon, Allan’s other lifetime achievements are three magnificent children. All have chosen to adopt the Benton’s Country Ham motto “We cure ‘em,” by pursuing careers in medicine. Each reflects their parents’ character, humility, intelligence, and compassion.
In recognition of Allan Benton’s commitment to the artisanal production of country ham and bacon, and the humble, caring character he exhibits through his business, the Southern Foodways Alliance is proud to present Allan with the 2007 Jack Daniel Lifetime Achievement Award, represented by this painting, by Blair Hobbs of Oxford.
– John Fleer
Allan Benton’s grandparents raised pork worth bragging about. Read MoreView Interview