This mild manner is the opposite of his carefully crafted cured smoked meats packed with so much flavor they border on being overwhelming. It also belies his intense dedication to his work that began when he traded the schoolhouse for a smokehouse and started Benton’s Smoky Mountain Country Hams in Madisonville, Tennessee almost fifty years ago.
Benton was raised on the country hams and other cuts his extended family in the mountains of West Virginia would cure and put up each autumn. “I loved the stuff but never dreamed I could make a living off it,” he says. Plan A was to be a teacher, which he did for a few years. In the early 1970s, he was working as a guidance counselor at a school in Madisonville and getting his master’s degree at the same time as a way to increase his small salary. After he earned the degree, the “miniscule” bump it gave his pay prompted a re-evaluation. He quit—and without a Plan B. But a new path found him only a few weeks later when an older man in the community, who’d been curing hams in a little bare-frame house in his backyard, retired. Benton leased his tiny facility and got busy filling his market void. He had no idea what was coming next. “I really thought I might make it a year, long enough to maybe get into law school and then be done,” he says.
Forty-five years later, he’s still doing it. He’s still working, answering calls in the main office and sometimes missing them because he’s running the meat saw or out stoking the fire in the smokehouse. Benton’s is a one-stop shop. “We make it, we slice it, we package it, and we ship it,” he says. And he’s still doing it basically the same way, using time-tested techniques.
When he started, he relied on what he’d seen growing up, but he took steps to refine those methods too. “I knew what we did at home, but I wanted to do it really right, so I went about learning everything I could,” he says. He wrote to schools of agriculture all over the Southeast and soaked in all the knowledge he could find. He began with his family’s recipe and then, in a quest for the best, did a little more looking around. “I played with so many recipes to see if there was one better—but there’s not, so I went right back, and I still use the family recipe,” he says.
But he did deviate in one way, adding the dusky billows rising off burning hickory to the equation, something his family never did. “We didn’t smoke our meats, but as soon as I tried it, I knew I needed to do it and that people would like it,” he says. He was right; currently, his smoked products make up 99 percent of his sales.
After just a few months, he realized how much he enjoyed his new occupation and ditched all ideas of being a lawyer. The job he stumbled into became a beloved career that some might dub a calling. Today, he’s a darling of the restaurant world—the preferred purveyor of cured pork for the country’s hottest (and most discerning) chefs and has been crowned the “king of pork” and “a bacon god” by numerous national publications. His products can be found in two hundred restaurants in New York City alone.
But that’s now. In the beginning, the business fed his family, yet it was not an instant success. “The first twenty years were pretty lean,” Benton says. But he stayed with it and credits consistency for his longevity. That, and a few key chefs discovering and forging a deep devotion to his meats. The initial order came from chef John Fleer when he was at Blackberry Farm, a luxury resort in Tennessee renowned for its wining and dining. “His was the first ‘white tablecloth restaurant’ to do business with me,” Benton says. “He and other chefs following him really propelled the business up. I owe all of them such a debt of gratitude.”
Benton produces country hams (smoked and unsmoked), some aged more than a year, but his name is most synonymous with bacon. He’s careful not to disparage other brands while pointing to the clear differences in his. “There’s lots of good bacon in grocery stores, but that bacon is made by injecting a brine into the pork belly and then just doing a real short, light smoke on it,” he says. His bacon starts with a dry cure of two simple, pure ingredients: salt and brown sugar. “There’s nothing you can’t pronounce,” Benton says. “You are what you eat. I’ve not always thought that, but now I believe it, so I’m happy we’re all natural.” The bellies cure for thirty days and then undergo three days of further flavor infusion in the hickory-fueled smokehouse. The result is a potent punch of salt and smoke that Benton admits isn’t for everyone. “Some folks don’t like it,” he says. But plenty do.
And while Benton derives deep satisfaction from making products people love, it’s not what keeps him going at age seventy-one. “I love making bacon and ham, but by far, the best part of this business is the incredible element of humanity I’ve gotten to meet along the way,” he says. “From fabulously talented chefs to the retail customers, the old farmers in their bib overalls, the guys in three-piece suits and young hipsters; I love that cross section. I want to take best care of every chef who serves my products and every person who orders or who walks through our door—everyone who cares about what I do. That’s my drive now.”