MADISONVILLE, Tennessee — Allan Benton started selling farm hams here in the 1970s, figuring he could earn a better living than he did as a high school counselor. His early efforts were not encouraging.
“I’d kick them on the back of a pickup truck up through Maryville, to Townsend, through Wears Valley to Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg,” he said of his hams, which were 15 months old instead of his competitors’ 90 days. ‘ . “Nobody wanted them. I was almost starving.”
Nearly 50 years later, Benton’s Smoky Mountain Country Hams are revered for the bacon found on menus at the country’s most celebrated restaurants, and for ham products ranging from packets of “biscuit pieces” to traditional hindquarters aged two years and more, until the depth of flavor of the meat is comparable to jamón Ibérico and prosciutto.
“I knew I had something special,” he said.
On a recent afternoon in April, Mr. Benton looks forward to seeking out slopes in the southern Appalachians, about an hour’s drive from his smokehouse. The pastime has been associated with Mr. Benton, as journalists, celebrity chefs and foodies spread the word about the hospitality the hammaker offers to those visiting its headquarters in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains.
The happiest of them come in the spring to join Mr. Benton, 74, on an expedition that ends with a riverside lunch of ham, bacon and potatoes cooked with fresh slopes in the woods along the Tennessee-North Carolina border.
“I took David Chang back a few years ago,” he said, referring to the chef, who has been using Benton’s bacon since opening his first restaurant, Momofuku, in 2004. “His eyes were the size of saucers. He’d never seen anything like it.”
Mr. Benton’s processing facility, just under an hour’s drive south of Knoxville, has been cobbled together over decades to accommodate the slow but steady increase in demand.
“We’ve got hams in every nook and cranny of this building,” he said, pausing in front of one of the many rooms where they hung, often next to pork bellies. He rested his hand on one of the wooden racks he had built with his father, BD Benton, for aging hams in the early days of the company. “We have done so much ourselves.”
Benton’s attachment to pre-industrial methods—his smokehouses are fueled by wood-burning stoves that wouldn’t look out of place in a cabin living room—pairs well with his love of the southern Appalachians, where he spent his entire life.
“Growing up, neither side of my family owned a car, truck, or tractor,” he said of his upbringing in Scott County, Virginia. “They farmed horses and mules. They ran everywhere they went.”
Mr. Benton picked up packs of bacon and sliced ham for the rampage hunt from behind the counter in the Benton’s store, where he greeted customers on their way to his pickup truck. The next morning, he provided commentary as he drove along a winding river on his way to Cherokee National Forest. “These next 11 miles are beautiful,” he said. “After that it gets breathtaking.”
After nearly an hour of driving, Mr. benton
parked at a trailhead in an area near where he used to hunt bears. He quit eight years ago when he found he couldn’t keep up with the dogs anymore. He advises against eating a bear — “the best I’ve ever had isn’t great” — and he hasn’t killed one either.
“I’ve never been interested in shooting a bear,” he said. “I like watching the dogs run one up a tree. Then I’m done.”
Mr. Benton led the way along an old logging road on foot. The pleasant white sound of spring-fed streams was interrupted only briefly by the rustle of a fleeing grouse.
He balanced himself with a long stick as he walked on rocks across a creek. He saw a stretch of slopes on the other side. Using a small ax called a pickaxe to dislodge the grime, he uprooted several with a gentle tug and stuffed them into a plastic shopping bag.
“They’re small,” he said, “but I know we’re going to be a mess.”
Mr. Benton continued up the trail, foraging on slopes along the way—some up a steep hill, others on the banks of a stream—until he and I chose the Tennessee state-mandated limit of 40 slopes.
Back in the truck, he explained how deep the roots of Appalachian hillside hunting are. “These mountain people can’t just go to Kroger,” he said. “In the spring of every year, imagine how hungry they would be for something green.”
He drove down the mountain to a campground on the North River and quickly unloaded the things he’d packed for the day’s lunch: a gas stove, folding chairs, firewood, a zip-lock bag filled with cornbread he’d baked that morning.
Mr. Benton demonstrated how to clean the slopes in the shallow running water of the river and then took a seat by the fire, where he peeled and chopped several pounds of potatoes with a paring knife, without a hard surface.
“A lot of people here like to eat their sconces with ham and eggs,” he said. “I prefer potatoes.”
He fried bacon in a cast iron pan “just shy of crispy,” as he instructs his customers. He then fried slices of ham in the fat “12 to 14 seconds per side,” which he also recommends. “Any longer and it will be saltier.”
Mr. Benton set the meat aside and stirred the potatoes into the melted fat. A garlic aroma permeated the smoke from the campfire shortly after he threw sliced flakes into the pan to sweat before serving.
Growing up near the Smoky Mountains, Joseph Lenn was no stranger to slopes when he first went foraging there 10 years ago with Mr. benton. What has since become an annual tradition inspired Mr. Lenn to create a seasonal special at JC Holdway, his downtown Knoxville restaurant. It features pork shank or collar alongside potatoes and ramps cooked in Benton’s bacon grease.
“It’s a refined version of the camping meal that Allan prepares,” says Mr. Lenn, whose current menu also includes a pasta Bolognese made with Benton’s bacon.
When he had finished cooking, Mr. Benton picked up a paper plate of meat, potatoes, and cornbread and sat back in his chair. “I prefer it to foie gras, to be honest,” he said, staring through the smoke from the campfire at the nearby river. “It’s even better here.”