The Perfect Cure at Benton’s Smoky Mountain Country Hams

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Benton's Smoky Mountain Country Hams

The scent of hickory smoke hangs in the air at Benton’s Smoky Mountain Country Hams in Madisonville. Workers hurry from the curing room to the smokehouse, carrying slabs of bacon and salt-encrusted hams. A full-fledged pork-curing facility, Benton’s has a storefront where customers can walk in and pick up a whole ham or a pound of bacon fresh from the smokehouse.

While the meat counter enjoys a steady trickle of customers, owner Allan Benton says most of his cured pork travels to restaurants and stores.

“Seventy-five percent of my sales go out on the UPS truck every day,” Benton says. “Chefs across the country order our meat and use it to prepare all sorts of dishes.”
Benton’s Beginnings

It all started in 1946, when Albert Hicks discovered the popularity of his home-cured country hams.

“Hicks was a local dairy farmer,” Benton explains. “In the mid-1940s, a relative of his wife’s came to stay with them and inquired about the ham they ate each morning for breakfast.

As the story goes, the visitor asked if he could purchase some hams, which Hicks had cured in the painted block smokehouse behind his house. “That’s no problem,” Hicks replied. “I have some extras out in the smokehouse.” But to the farmer’s surprise, the visitor asked to buy 100 hams.

Within a year, Hicks was curing 200 to 300 hams at a time and selling them to local consumers. “People began stopping by his house and asking to buy one of the hams,” Benton says. “He ran that business out of his little smokehouse until 1973.”

Benton's Smoky Mountain Country Hams

Pork Appreciation

A young high school counselor in search of an alternate career path, Allan Benton briefly considered applying to law school in the mid-1970s. Then he heard that Albert Hicks was retiring from his pork-curing business.

“I asked if he’d consider leasing me that old building in his backyard and letting me try to make country ham,” Benton says. “He agreed. I jumped in and immediately started contacting universities all over the South, trying to learn about what I was doing.”

Benton says he owes a heavy debt of gratitude to Hicks, too, for teaching him about the process – and about running a business with Southern grace.

“Albert Hicks was your stereotypical Southern gentleman,” Benton recalls. “He always wore a hat, and most of the time, he had an unlit cigar in his mouth.”

Benton's Smoky Mountain Country Hams

Benton quickly educated himself about the pork-curing process, drawing on knowledge from the University of Tennessee’s food technology department, Hicks and personal experience.

“When I was growing up, my two sets of grandparents lived 1 mile apart in Scott County, Va.,” Benton says. “Traditionally, hog-killing day was on Thanksgiving, when the whole family was gathered, and we’d go help kill the hogs and grind the sausage. I grew up loving country ham, sausage and bacon.”

For several years after taking over the business, Benton searched diligently for the perfect cure. “Hicks used white sugar and salt on his hams, but my grandparents had always used brown sugar,” he says. “Eventually, I settled on a mixture of brown sugar, salt, and black and red pepper.”

Benton's Smoky Mountain Country Hams

Recipe for Success

At first, Benton struggled to succeed at his business venture. “After about five years, I was barely keeping the doors open,” he says. “I told my father that I’d have to start quick-curing the hams to keep up with my competition.”

Benton’s father looked him in the eye and delivered a solemn reply: “Son, if you play the other guys’ game, you always lose. Stay with what you know, do what you know how to do, and eventually, quality will win out.”

Benton heeded his father’s advice and persevered, curing his hams the old-fashioned way. After receiving an initial coating of cure, the hams are aged, cured again and smoked.

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“Some chefs want hams that are aged for 14 months, and others want them aged for 18 months or more,” Benton says. “We cater to the preferences of individual customers.”

Curing bacon is a quicker process. “From start to finish, it takes four to five weeks,” Benton says. “We put it in cure for 10 days, put it out on racks in another cooler for 10 days, age it for eight to 10 days, and then take it into the smokehouse for three days.”

Once the bacon cools, it’s ready to be sliced, packaged and shipped.

Benton's Smoky Mountain Country Hams

A Trendy Title

Madisonville residents have always loved Benton’s pork products, but since the early 1990s, the brand’s distinctive, smoky flavor has found increasing popularity outside the rural community – and outside Tennessee. Benton credits John Fleer, former chef at Blackberry Farm in Walland, for spreading the word.

“Fleer bought some of our meat and used it in his recipes. One day, he called and told me he wanted to develop a menu largely around our products and asked permission to put our name on the menu.” Stunned, Benton agreed.

Benton's Smoky Mountain Country Hams

Because Fleer shared the products with other chefs who visited Blackberry Farm, Benton started to receive orders from all over the country.

“We are so lucky,” he says. “Today, we ship our meats to some of the best chefs and restaurants in the U.S., from New York City to California’s Napa Valley.”

 

Dozens of locally owned Tennessee restaurants serve Benton’s bacon or ham, often citing the brand on their menus. If you’d rather incorporate the smoky flavor of Benton’s into your own dishes, stop by one of the following retailers:

  • Benton’s Smoky Mountain Hams Store, 2603 Highway 411 N., Madisonville
  • Three Rivers Market, 1100 N. Central St., Knoxville
  • Turnip Truck Natural Market, 970 Woodland St., Nashville
  • Pruett’s Market, 1210 Taft Hwy., Signal Mountain
  • Archers Food Center, 27 West Norris Rd., Norris

You can also order Benton’s products online at bentonscountryhams2.com or via telephone at (423) 442-5003.

 

2 Comments

  1. Brenda Huckaby

    April 6, 2016 at 8:40 pm

    I have always purchased our ham directly from your store but have never noticed – is the country ham packaged so that it does not have to be refrigerated until open? My husband is a Shriner in Knoxville and we are having an even next month that will bring 1000-2000 Shriners to Pigeon Forge. Our Corvette Unit is putting together a basket of goodies that are made in Tennessee. I would love to get a small package of country ham for the basket if it doesn’t have to be refrigerated?

    • Rachel Bertone

      April 7, 2016 at 11:19 am

      Hi Brenda,

      Thanks for your comment! We featured a story on Benton’s Smoky Mountain Country Hams and are not directly affiliated with the company. Please contact them directly at (423) 442-5003. Thanks!

      Rachel Bertone
      editor, TN Home and Farm

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