MADISONVILLE, Tenn. - Allan Benton started selling country hams here in the 1970s, figuring he could make a better living than he did as a high school guidance counselor. His early efforts were not encouraging.
"I would peddle them on the back of a pickup truck up through Maryville, over to Townsend, through Wears Valley into Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg," he said of his hams, which were aged 15 months rather than the 90 days of his competitors'. "No one wanted them. I just about starved."
Nearly 50 years later, Benton's Smoky Mountain Country Hams is revered for bacon found on menus in the country's most celebrated restaurants and for ham products ranging from packages of "biscuit piece" slices to heritage-breed hindquarters aged for two years and longer, until the meat's depth of flavor is comparable to jamón Ibérico and prosciutto.
"I knew I had something special," he said.
On a recent April afternoon, Benton was looking forward to foraging for ramps in the Southern Appalachian Mountains, about an hour's drive from his smokehouse. The pastime has become associated with Benton over the years, as word spread among journalists, celebrity chefs and food enthusiasts about the hospitality the ham maker extends to those who visit his headquarters in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains.
The luckiest among them come in the spring to join Benton, 74, for an expedition that ends with a creekside lunch of ham, bacon and potatoes cooked with fresh ramps in the woods along the Tennessee-North Carolina border.
"I took David Chang back there some years ago," he said, referring to the chef, who has used Benton's bacon since opening his first restaurant, Momofuku, in 2004. "His eyes were as big as saucers. He'd never seen anything like it."
Benton's processing facility, just under an hour's drive south of Knoxville, has been cobbled together over decades to accommodate the slow but sure increase in demand.
"We have hams in every nook and cranny of this building," he said, pausing outside one of the many rooms where they hung, often alongside pork bellies. He rested his hand on one of the wood racks he built for aging hams with his father, B.D. Benton, in the early days of the business. "We did so much of this ourselves."
Benton's attachment to preindustrial methods - his smokehouses are fueled by wood stoves that wouldn't look out of place in a cabin's living room - is of a piece with his love for Southern Appalachia, where he has spent his entire life.
Closer to home
Polk County, Tennessee, is known for its annual Ramp Tramp Festival, held each April since 1958 in the Greasy Creek community near Reliance. The highlight is a meal consisting of fried ramps in eggs, fried potatoes, white beans, streaked meat bacon and cornbread. Ramps are also sold by the bag while supplies last. Learn more at ramptrampfestival.com.
"When I was growing up, neither side of my family owned a car or truck or tractor," he said of his upbringing in Scott County, Virginia. "They farmed with horses and mules. They walked everywhere they went."
Benton grabbed packages of bacon and sliced ham for the ramp hunting trip from behind the counter in the Benton's store, where he greeted customers on the way out to his pickup truck. The next morning, he provided commentary while driving along a winding river en route to Cherokee National Forest. "These next 11 miles are pretty," he said. "It's going to be breathtaking after that."
After driving nearly an hour, Benton parked at a trailhead in an area near where he used to hunt bear. He stopped eight years ago, when he found he could no longer keep up with the dogs. He doesn't recommend eating bear - "the best I ever had is not great" - and he hasn't actually killed one.
"I never had any interest in shooting a bear," he said. "I like to watch the dogs run one up a tree. Then I'm done."
Benton led the way by foot down an old logging road. The pleasant white noise of spring-fed streams was interrupted only briefly, by the rustle of a fleeing grouse.
He steadied himself with a long stick as he walked on rocks across a creek. He spotted a patch of ramps on the other side. Using a small ax called a mattock to loosen the dirt, he uprooted several with a gentle tug, depositing them in a plastic grocery bag.
"They're small," he said, "but I know we're going to find a mess of them."
Benton continued further up the trail, foraging ramps along the way - some up a steep hill, others on the bank of a stream - until he and I had picked the Tennessee state-mandated limit of 40 ramps.
Back in the truck, he explained ramp hunting's deep roots in Appalachia. "These mountain people, they couldn't just go to Kroger," he said. "In the spring of every year, you have to imagine how hungry they'd be for something green."
He drove down the mountain to a campsite on the North River and quickly unloaded the gear he'd packed for the day's lunch: a gas camp stove, folding chairs, firewood, a zip-sealed bag filled with cornbread he had baked that morning.
Benton demonstrated how to clean the ramps in the river's shallow running water and then took a seat by the fire, where he proceeded to peel and chop several pounds of potatoes using a paring knife and no hard surface.
"Lots of people around here like to eat their ramps with ham and eggs," he said. "I prefer the potatoes."
He browned bacon in a cast-iron pan "just shy of crisp," as he instructs his customers. He then fried slices of ham in the grease "12 to 14 seconds per side," which he also recommends. "Any longer and it gets saltier."
Setting the meat aside, Benton stirred the potatoes in the rendered fat. A garlicky aroma penetrated the campfire's smoke soon after he tossed sliced ramps into the pan to sweat before serving.
When he had finished cooking, Benton took a paper plate of meat, potatoes and cornbread and settled back into his chair. "I prefer it to foie gras, to be quite honest," he said, staring through the campfire smoke to the nearby river. "It's even better out here."