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For the past 35 years, Allan Benton has been quietly perfecting the art of slow curing ham at his smokehouse/store, Benton’s Smoky Mountain Country Hams in Madisonville, Tennessee. Benton’s hams and bacon are shipped to some of the finest restaurants in the country, places like Luke in New Orleans, Momofuku Noodle Bar in New York, Five & Ten in Athens, GA, and closer to home Blackberry Farms in East Tennessee. Chefs from New York to Los Angeles use Benton’s ham exclusively. The bacon is the thickest I’ve ever seen, and the most intense. You taste pig, salt, and smoke (definitely not in that order) in every inch of every strip.
I’m not 100% sure what makes a delicious piece of ham, but here’s what I know about Benton’s way of doing things: Ingredients = salt, brown sugar (!!!), hog, and time. Most of the products are aged nine to 10 months, though some hams sit (or hang) as long as 18 months. The wait intensifies the taste. In the past several years, demand for Benton’s pork has jumped; the company now produces 13 to 14 thousand hams per year, and as many bacon bellies.
A few weeks ago I spent some time in Madinsonville photographing the process of making smoked ham. I saw the meat being smoked, cured, cut into bacon, packaged, and hung for drying. What struck me the most about the operation is the amount of hands-on-ness, if that is a word. Every step of the way, a human being was in charge of the process.