Allan Benton doesn't care if his alma mater, the University of Tennessee, dubbed him the "King of Country Ham" or if Nashville-based writer Chris Chamberlain called him the "East Tennessee Bacon God" or if Southern food pundit John T. Edge referred to him as "One of America's greatest artisans."
When I spoke with Benton, he downplayed himself as "just a local hillbilly, smoking ham and bacon the old-fashioned way."
If he won't brag, I'll brag for him: Benton's passion, pride and perseverance yields an otherworldly product that no amount of clout or riches could coerce him to compromise.
If the mainstream, mass-produced bacon from your local grocery store is a box of White Zinfandel Franzia, Benton's bacon is a Melchizedek-sized bottle of Dom Perignon.
The unapologetic flavors smack you, like how when you take a gulp of champagne and the bubbles are so intense they spew through your nostrils.
Mainstream, mass-produced bacon contains all sorts of sodium, including sodium phosphates, sodium nitrite and sodium erythorbate, and sometimes even liquid smoke. On the other hand, the bacon from Benton's only needs salt, brown sugar and pepper and is cured that way, with the same methods as it was since the days before refrigeration.
"Back when we first started, I'd lay awake at night wondering if we'd make enough money to survive," he said.
That all changed when Chef John Fleer started to morph Blackberry Farms into a five-star culinary destination. Chefs from around the world made a pilgrimage to the 4,200-acre spread in Walland, Tennessee, and Chef Fleer would vigorously endorse Bentons's smoked goods. Instead of describing the bacon sprinkled atop the zabaglione as just "bacon," Fleer would name-drop and specifically call it "Benton's Bacon."
The chefs would leave with greasy chins back to Seattle, Paris, etc., and would eventually end up ordering Benton's hams and bacon for their own bistros, chophouses and trattorias.
"I could never repay Chef John Fleer for single-handedly putting my name out there," Benton said.
Fleer has since left Blackberry Farms to open Rhubarb in Asheville, North Carolina, where there is a dish on the menu called Oyster's Benton (a riff on the New Orleans classic, Oyster Bienville). For chefs, the gold label on Benton's bacon might as well be the golden ticket Charlie found in his Wonka Bar.
In her recent column, Anne Braly tempts you to make a trek to Madisonville for a package (or two) of Benton's bacon, and she even threw in a shrimp and grits recipe. If you don't feel like hovering over the stove, deveining shrimp or trying to dig out that cast iron skillet from the kitchen cabinet, I've curated a handful of dishes from local restaurants that offer the hickory-blessed magic of Benton's Bacon.
ST. JOHN'S MEETING PLACE
Benton's bacon is featured alongside oyster mushrooms, strawberry onions, cabbage puree and pecans, which all play an essential part in the roasted chicken dish, and for a $4 upcharge, you can add the bacon to the Meeting Place Burger.
"We sell so many of these (Benton's bacon-wrapped dates) at Alleia because they're so delicious!" Chef Rebecca Barron said. "Benton's bacon is so incredible because it's such a simple product. I'm pretty sure they don't use any nitrate, so there's nothing weird in it. You know, the other bacon you buy from the store tastes so processed. We also use his bacon on our ricotta and rosemary pizza, and at our restaurant in Nashville, we use it to wrap our stuffed quail and our chicken liver mousse. I also used the leftover grease in our meatloaf."
Noah Walton crumbles Benton's bacon and uses it on the Buffalo Soldier pie at Southside Pizza. "We also use it on our Big Papa Speciality Pie. We always try to use the freshest and most local ingredients as possible, so it's no-brainer when to use a world-famous bacon that gets used by Michelin star restaurants in New York City or Miami; why wouldn't we take advantage of it being so close to us? Contrary to normal bacon, the profile of Benton's is way saltier, it's way smokier, but it really complements our pizza. Anytime we've ever run out of Benton and had to use a different bacon, you could really notice the difference; it just wasn't as good."
Whitebird at the Edwin Hotel uses Benton's bacon in the winter greens salad, butter-roasted freshwater trout and to flavor the beans for the ragout and succotash. "Benton's bacon is packed full of a beautiful smoky flavor, and our guests love it," Chef Joseph Madzia IV said. "We like to tell stories in our dining rooms, and having Benton's bacon on our menu showcases Tennessee. We use it in our scallop dish too, but my favorite way to use his bacon is in our house-made bacon jam."
Burger Republic offers loaded fries covered in roasted garlic gloves, Parmesan cheese, green onion, and, of course, Benton's bacon, which the dish is named after.
"The Benton's lardon that we use provides a critical punch of salt and flavors the entire dish through the rendering process, adding depth and richness that would be impossible with another bacon. Our shrimp and grits would still be good, but the Benton's adds that certain je ne sais quoi that puts it well above the rest," says Sanders Parker, general manager and executive chef at uber-eclectic Flying Squirrel, which has also used the bacon in the past on dishes like red snapper with preserved black truffle and roasted leeks.
And lastly, Allan Benton told me that his favorite way to eat his bacon is on a BLT sandwich, with the fresh tomatoes he can get his hands on.