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Robert St. John

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

The Perfect Gift

December 17, 2012




When I opened the door to my office the other day the aroma hit me right away.  It took about two seconds to decipher the origin of the smoky fragrance and I hoped it was coming from the room that houses my desk in the back of the building.


The office where I work on a daily basis is not connected to any of the restaurants. It is in an entirely separate facility nearby. So any food fragrances are foreign to these walls.


There weren’t any large shipping boxes in the front of the office, so I knew that there hadn’t been a food delivery that day. This was a good sign. The source of that superb scent was probably not going to follow its typical path and be taken to one of the restaurant kitchens.


As I walked down the hall towards the back of the building, the smell of expertly cured and smoked pork filled the air. It was emanating from my office. It was, as I had suspected, Allan Benton’s bacon, and I was ecstatic.


In 12 years of columns and well over 500,000 words published, I have never used the adjective “otherworldly.” Actually, I am not sure if the Webster’s definition of that word even applies to foodstuffs. But that is the word I am about to use.


Benton’s bacon is otherworldly.


Apparently, some friends from Hattiesburg had been travelling down I-75 near Madisonville, Tenn., and— did what any wise person should do when they are within 60 miles of Madisonville— pulled into the Benton’s Smoky Mountain Country Hams facility. Benton was on site, and when he found out they were from Hattiesburg, asked them to deliver several pounds of bacon to me, an early Christmas gift. I love that guy.


There are only a few people I have met in my 51 years who consistently achieve perfection in their chosen field. None do it with the ease and passion of Benton. He cures and smokes pork the way it was done hundreds of years ago. It takes time, it takes skill, and it takes patience. It also takes a lot of love.


While spending several weeks in Spain last year, eating Jamon Iberico— universally recognized as the best ham in the world— I followed the process from the pigs foraging for acorns under the cork and oaks, to the curing process, and finally the plate. One afternoon I spent a substantial amount of time a room where 150,000 of the world’s finest hams were hanging and wasn’t as impressed as I had been with the original nickel tour I received in Benton’s facility over a decade ago.


Granted, Benton’s hams are entirely different than the hams of Spain, but they taste like “home.” In October my mother-in-law sent 12 pounds of Benton’s bacon to me as a birthday present (and my wife says that I’m “hard to shop for”).


Food is the perfect gift. As I grow older, and as my desire for material junk wanes, I appreciate simpler, more satisfying— and flavorful— presents.


A man I know makes the best fig preserves I have ever tasted, and on occasion and when the figs “had a good year,” he brings a few jars by my office. I have written for several decades about my longtime across-the-street neighbor, Mary Virginia McKenzie and her orange sweet rolls. Those sourdough sweet rolls magically find their way to my doorstep just before holidays and on rare occasions throughout the year. I have eaten them every Christmas morning for 51 years, save last year when I didn’t have the foresight to ship a few dozen to Spain for the holidays.


The Christmas season usually bring a small metal tin of my other longtime across-the-street neighbor, Larry Foote’s salty pecans, one friend brings cheese straws, another brings Martha Washington candy.


My grandmother made fudge cake. At least that’s what she called it. It wasn’t fudge and it wasn’t cake. They were actually brownies, but I guess that’s what they called them in Nashville and so that’s what we still call them. I would give anything I own to see her walk through my door again with a tin of fudge cake.


This year I will give honey from the hives at my garden and olive oil shipped from my friend Enzo in Tuscany.


This year put on an apron. Bake a batch of cookies or brownies. Walk them over to your neighbor’s house and let them know that you truly care. You took the time to prepare something special for them, a gift with a story, and one that means something to you as well.


Food is love. Food is the perfect gift. The only thing that might compare is my newly reborn obsession with vinyl albums. Music is great, but it usually doesn’t taste very good.




Muz’s Fudge Cake


4 Squares            Bakers Chocolate

2 sticks            Butter

4                        Eggs

2 cups                        Sugar

1 cup                        Flour

1 tsp                        Pure Vanilla Extract

1 cup                         Pecans, chopped

Pinch of salt


Preheat oven to 350-degrees.


Melt chocolate and butter together in a double boiler. Once incorporated let cool slightly. Cooled chocolate should still be in liquid form.


Mix together the four eggs and gradually and the two cups of sugar until completely incorporated. SLOWLY pour the slightly warm chocolate mixture into the egg/sugar mixture.


Slowly incorporate the flour into the chocolate/egg mixture. Add vanilla, nuts, salt, and mix.


Line a pan with waxed paper or parchment. Pour in the chocolate mix. Bake at 350 approximately 30 minutes or until an inserted toothpick comes out clean.


Remove from oven. Let cool five minutes. Carefully flip the fudge cake and finish cooling. Once cooled completely, remove wax paper and cut into squares.





Larry Foote’s Salty Cocktail Pecans


1 1/2 lbs                         Pecan halves

Unsalted butter, to taste (cut into 1 Tbl. Pats)

Salt, to taste


Preheat oven to 320 degrees.


Place pecans in a 13 x 9 aluminum baking pan with two-inch sides. Dot with five pats of butter and lightly salt the pecans. Place in oven for 10 minutes. Remove pan from oven and gently fold (stir) pecans with a wooden spoon, adding three pats of butter and a light sprinkling of salt. Repeat this cooking procedure every 10 minutes, slightly increasing the amount of salt each time, while lightly decreasing the amount of butter. Never add more butter than the pecans can absorb in a 10 minute period and be very gently when stirring the pecans.


The entire process takes 60-65 minutes. When done, spread a layer of wax paper and dig in.




Mary Virginia’s Orange Sweet Rolls



1 cup                        Boiling water

1 cup                        Shortening (or 2 sticks of butter)

1 cup                        Sugar

1 1/2 tsp            Salt

2                        Eggs (large)

2 Tbl                        Yeast (2 packages)

1 cup                        Warm water

Dash                        Sugar

6 cups                        Flour




1 stick                                                Butter

1 1/4 cup                                    Granulated sugar

1 1/2 Tbl                                    Cinnamon

1 lb                                                Confectioner’s sugar

Grated rind of two navel oranges

Enough orange juice to make a glaze



Pour water over shortening, sugar and salt. Blend and let cool. Add eggs and beat well. Let yeast stand in water with a dash of sugar until bubbly.


Add yeast mixture to shortening mixture when it is absolutely cool. Then beat in the flour. Cover and refrigerate three to four hours.


Preheat oven to 350


Using melted butter, grease six aluminum-foil lined nine-inch cake pans.


Roll out dough into a large rectangle (1 foot by 3 feet). Sprinkle with granulated sugar and cinnamon.


Roll up dough, jellyroll style, from the long side. Cut 3 /4-inch thick and place into prepared cake pans. Let rise until doubled in size (about 1 hour).


Bake for 15 minutes.


Make a glaze using confectioner’s sugar, orange rind and orange juice. Ice rolls while they are hot. These rolls freeze well in zip-loc bags, but if you are like me, they won’t last long enough to make it to the freezer. Yield: Not enough


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