Benton’s Country Ham has been in business for 49 years. From its foundation in the autumn of 1973 to today, it has grown to be an enormous provider of bacon, country ham, and European-style pork across the United States. Benton’s name has been represented at culinary festivals everywhere — from the Big Apple BBQ Festival to Atlanta’s Food and Wine. I had the privilege of spending an afternoon with Al Benton himself at his main store in Madisonville, Tennessee to take a look around and discuss everything from his modest beginnings to current processes.
A Career Change and Humble Beginnings
In 1973, Benton was working full-time as a high school guidance counselor. Only two days after he had gotten his Master’s degree, the school handed out a salary schedule to the faculty. “That was all I needed to know to know I needed a career change,” he laughs. At the time, he had “no designs in the meat business,” but he had heard of a man named Albert Hicks who had just quit his own bacon and ham business, which he had been running since 1947. Hicks ran his store out of a small building just behind his house. Benton got the idea to ask Hicks if he could lease that little building, and Hicks obliged. “I was as young as the green grass in the backyard,” he reminisces, but he now had one goal: to make “world class country ham and bacon.”
Thankfully, he had a bit of help starting out. “[Hicks] was an incredible man,” says Benton. “I learned things from him they don’t teach you in the University.” One such lesson came on an afternoon when a customer came in and made a purchase. As they didn’t have any adding machines or calculators, Benton did the math by hand, calculating for taxes and all, on a small piece of receipt paper. When the customer left, he balled up the paper and threw it in the trash. Benton painted a picture of the moment Hicks taught him something he still practices to this day:
“Albert always wore a hat… kept a cigar in his mouth 90% of the time, and about 40% of the time it wasn’t even lit… He pushed that hat back on his head and said, ‘Boy, write on the back side of that paper before you throw it away.’”
Benton knew what he meant immediately — he had to conserve resources, and he had a long road learning how to keep his business moving ahead. Hicks knew that. Benton tells me that for the first twenty to twenty-five years, he “laid awake at night” just hoping to keep the doors open. At the start, the entire operation consisted of him and one employee. “To this day, I’m still guilty of writing on the backside of my paper,” he jokes.
Fine Dining Restaurants and The Big Break
After decades of treading water and working hard selling wholesale in Gatlinburg, Benton finally found his first break in the form of a deal with the luxury resort, Blackberry Farm. This was the first step in the creation of the fixture that exists today. “From that relationship, I got invited to a country ham tasting at the University of Mississippi in Oxford,” he tells me. At that event, fine chefs from around the country kept trying his ham and wanting to buy it. This is when Benton figured out that fine dining restaurants were going to be his market. “The restaurants were our salvation,” he states.
Benton eventually got an order from a chef named Tom Colicchio in New York City. At the time, he had only three employees, and he was nervous. “I went around telling them, you won’t believe that a fella in New York City is buying our products,” he laughs. A humble, optimistic man, he went on to tell his workers, “I can tell you he doesn’t know what he’s buying and surely won’t buy anything else, but at least we can say we shipped product all the way to New York City.” Three weeks to the day after he shipped that order out, he was selling ham to seven restaurants in New York.
The Art of Pork
Such widespread success has not come without a carefully perfected craft. Behind the small storefront at Benton’s homebase is room after room of ham hanging on huge wooden racks, all dated. The meat cures for any amount of time between eight or nine months to thirty, depending on its purpose. It all starts with high quality pigs: Berkshire, Tamworth, and Red Wattle. “We buy a lot of pasture-raised, old heritage pigs, with no antibiotics,” Benton explains. His seasoning for each kind of meat — bacon, country ham, and European-style ham — is kept very simple. Hams are cured with only salt, brown sugar, black and red pepper, and sodium nitrite. Bacon, with only salt and brown sugar; “No nitrates, no nitrites, no words that you can’t pronounce.”
Walking around the facility, each room has a distinct purpose and a temperature to accompany it. In one of the first rooms behind the storefront, I note that it’s fairly warm. Benton tells me this is to control against the production of trichina bacteria, which I’d never heard of. He tells me that around World Wars I and II, prisoners of war were kept in the area. They were fed ham fairly regularly, and because their foreign gut flora wasn’t used to American hogs, they all got very sick. “There’s been no documented case in over fifty years,” he clarifies, “but we do this as an extra safety measure at the end.”
After hams are rubbed with spice, they cure in refrigeration for about seven to ten days. From there, they are rubbed down a second time and put in a second refrigerated room for two months. After that, they are brought to a new cooler where they dry for three and a half to five months. Bacon is cured cold for ten days, then washed, racked, and cured for a second seven to ten. Benton tells me the key difference between eight or nine-month country ham and two or three-year European-style ham: heritage pigs. A higher percentage of intramuscular fat creates that melt-in-your-mouth sensation. This is the ham that is “shaved paper thin at high-end restaurants for a charcuterie plate,” he explains.
Speaking to the very pleasant Al Benton aside, my favorite part of the tour was the smokehouses. As we twisted and turned through the maze of curing hams, we came to a warm room with the wafting scent of hickory and applewood smoke. Benton opened the large double doors and smoke billowed out, explaining that ordinarily, you wouldn’t be able to see in front of you. There are two smokehouses where hams are smoked at only 90° Fahrenheit for three entire days. This is what’s known as a “cold smoke.” “We’re not cooking it, just trying to impart smoke flavor,” he tells me. When they are done in the smokehouse, hams are placed into a freezer running at only 10° Fahrenheit. Benton and I walked around to the back of one smokehouse where a pole barn stood covering piles of logs, and he opened the tiny door to the fire pit. I couldn’t help but take a big inhale and sigh. “You’re a woman after my own heart,” he laughed. It’s clear that after 49 years, he still loves what he does.
Benton sent me home with a sample of some bacon, as well as both types of ham. I seized my opportunity to ask him about his favorite ways to enjoy his own product. “You don’t want to cook [the bacon] real hard and crisp,” he informs me. “You want to be able to bend it without breaking.” He says that his favorite way to use the cooked bacon is to “find a local tomato and make a bacon lettuce tomato sandwich.” When I did this, I understood upon my first bite why this was his recommendation. This is "bacon with extra bacon sauce," with a strong smoky flavor that makes the typical grocery store option comparable to dry toast. The ripe tomato from my garden balanced this out perfectly. I had never known a BLT could be a good sandwich.
When you’re done cooking Benton’s bacon, save the grease! He keeps his in a glass on the counter. “I like to fry my eggs in the bacon grease,” he says. This grease also plays an important part in his cooking recommendations for his famous country ham. Benton instructed me to take a “big heaping spoonful” of bacon grease, and get it sizzling in a pan. Once it’s sizzling, cook it for twelve to fourteen seconds on one side, and twelve to fourteen seconds on the other. “That’s all the cooking it needs.” My package of country ham came in fairly thin slices, so these cooking directions made perfect sense. All this thin sliced, salted ham needs is a slight sear to become a high quality sandwich or salad meat. Do pair it with something light and fresh, much like the bacon.
Benton’s advice for his European-style ham was much more simple: “I love to wrap it around a bit of sweet, ripe cantaloupe.” The paper thin slices of European-style ham were my favorite of my samples. I took each tissue of meat by a corner and let it touch my hot pan for about a second before flipping it for one more — then wrapped each strip around a bite of cantaloupe as instructed. The result was a balanced, flavorful bite that reminded me of my favorite sushi rolls: crispy salt with a hint of bitter smoke gave way to the sweet, fresh melon.
My afternoon with Al Benton was dually educational and enjoyable. A genuine southern gentleman, Benton has none of the pretension one might expect to come with such a massive degree of success. “I’m humble for a reason,” he expresses. “I’m lucky to be in business all these years. I owe a debt of gratitude to every chef that ever used my product… I don’t take for granted that we ship all over the country to great restaurants.” That success allows Benton to raise cattle on his own property, as well as a small group of donkeys. “We raise black Angus… it’s a totally different business,” he explains to me. “It takes a really successful business to be able to afford a farm.” We both laughed.
Although he travels less than he used to, he still makes a point to have a presence at some festivals and distribute his ham nationwide. In Nashville, that distribution goes through A&B Distributors and Creation Gardens, also known as What Chefs Want. The era of Benton’s Famous Smoky Mountain Country Hams seems to stretch as far forward as it does back, centering around one man with about twenty-one employees in a small Tennessee Town. Despite decades of hard work and fighting for his business, Al Benton is quick on his feet, quick in his mind, warm, friendly, and still working. He divulges to me the secret of his good health: “I think the secret is to keep working. You can’t sit down.”
You can find Benton’s Country Ham available online here.