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Robert St. John

Restaurateur, author, enthusiastic traveler, & world-class eater.

Pilgrimage Part II

July 7, 2008

Pilgrimage Part II

In a non-descript building, on U.S. 411 outside of Madisonville Tennessee, in the foothills of the Smokey Mountains, sits a little smokehouse. Over the past few years it has become the porcine capital of the known universe. It is a place I have wanted to visit for a long time. Last week I made my pilgrimage.

Do you know the feeling of “let down” when you’ve anticipated something all of your life, or looked forward to visiting a person or place and once you finally got there, or met the person, it— or they— didn’t quite live up to your long-time romanticized expectations? A young boy worships a pro athlete during his youth and meets him later in life to find him rude and obnoxious. The idolized rock musician is nothing more than a hack in person. Dorothy and the Scarecrow met the Wizard and he’s a charlatan behind a curtain. Well, that didn’t happen, far from it.

Allan Benton and his smokehouse operation were everything I expected and more. The man-behind-the-curtain was the real deal. The visit was a culinary field trip of the first order.

Benton grew up poor. So poor he didn’t even know what “poor” was. His family lived in the mountains of rural Virginia without running water, electricity, or indoor plumbing. Smoking and curing meats was a way of survival. Necessity is the mother of perfection. Benton now produces the country’s best bacon, the Holy Grail of pork.

With a Mater’s Degree in psychology, Benton taught high school before becoming a master of cured meats. During our visit, he was humble and knowledgeable. I don’t know if I have ever met anyone in the food industry who is as passionate about his work as is Benton.

Benton gave my wife and I a guided tour of his operation. He cures and smokes bacon, hams, and prosciutto which he ships to fine restaurants and food lovers from New York to Napa.

Benton also makes sausage. But he can’t ship the sausage. I have wanted to try his smoked sausage and hot sausage for the last two years. While I was there, I loaded up on sausage and kept it iced down for the next six days while on the road. It currently sits in my freezer in a place of reverence waiting for the next special occasion breakfast.

Bacon and ham are what put Benton on the foodie map. He smokes and cures bacon as our ancestors did 200 years ago. The end result tastes the way bacon is supposed to taste.

Mass produced commercial bacon is injected with a chemical brine in a packing house, quick-smoked in a smoke room, and— 24 hours later— packaged and shipped. It’s quick, it’s easy, it’s profitable, and the result tastes nothing like bacon did years ago.

The Allan Benton process for curing and smoking bacon takes time— at least five weeks. Benton explained the bacon curing process as he walked us through the operation. First he mixes together a blend of salt, pepper, and brown sugar, rubs the pork bellies and stacks them in a 38-degree cooler for two weeks. The dry rub recipe is one passed down from his grandfather. Next he transfers the bellies to another cooler where they hang in a 45-degree environment for a week and a half, then to an aging room for another two weeks.

Once the bacon leaves the aging room, it is transferred to a smokehouse. The smokehouse is a simple 10-foot by 15-foot structure located behind the main building. As Benton opened the door, a thick cloud of hickory and apple-wood smoke billowed out.

I was amazed by the size of the stove that generates all of the smoke for Benton’s meats. It was about three-feet tall, one-foot wide, and well used. The smokehouse is in operation 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. Even on his one day off, Benton visits the smokehouse several times a day to add a log or two to the wood-burning stove.

I loaded up on bacon, ham, prosciutto, and sausage, and as soon as I got home I put some bacon in the skillet.

Cooking cured bacon is much different than regular store-bought bacon. I overcooked the first two batches I prepared when I ordered Benton’s bacon several years ago. Curing removes moisture, so during the frying process, lower heat must be used to cook the bacon, and one must remove the bacon from the pan earlier than when cooking store-bought bacon. It might not look cooked, but it is, and it is very, very, very good.

Over the years I have travelled from coast to coast meeting and eating with some of the kings of the culinary world. Some of the meetings were good and some were let downs. This time the man behind the curtain surpassed my expectations.

Save the emails and phone calls, 423-442-5003.

Barbara Jane’s Bacon and Tomato Sandwiches

2 cups Homemade Mayonnaise (or top quality store bought)
1 /2 cup Sour Cream
2 Tablespoons Bacon grease, reserved from cooked bacon
6 Green Onions, minced
1 (12 oz.) package Bacon, cooked, chopped fine
1 package (2 loaves) Pepperidge Farms Hot & Crispy bread
5 -6 Roma Tomatoes, sliced (8-10 slices per tomato depending on size)
Salt and Pepper to taste
Fresh parsley or basil, finely chopped

Combine mayonnaise, sour cream and melted bacon grease, onion, and chopped bacon and stir well.

Slice bread into 25-30 rounds per loaf. Spread mayonnaise onto bread rounds, top with a tomato slice, sprinkle with salt and pepper.

These can be made one day ahead. Arrange sandwiches on a cookie sheet in a single layer and cover well with plastic wrap. Refrigerate. If holding, wait to season sandwiches with salt and pepper until just before serving.

Sprinkle lightly with parsley or basil just before serving.

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