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Robert St. John

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


April 22, 2013

I am a blessed man.

I am blessed for many reasons: I have a beautiful, smart, loving wife who is an excellent mother. I have two wonderful children, a great extended family, and several businesses with passionate managers and dedicated employees.

One could stop right there and feel he or she is leading a blessed life. Yet the reason I am feeling an overabundance of blessings today is because I have the best friends on the planet.

You are probably reading this thinking, “That’s fine, St. John. You might have good friends, but mine are better.” Sorry, you are wrong. Mine are best, end of discussion.

I’m sure that you have good friends. Perhaps they have helped you in times of need, comforted you in times of loss, counseled you, stood by you, picked you up when you’ve stumbled, walked you through challenges in the seasons of life. Good for you. I’ve got that, too.

One cannot overstate the importance of those friends. Though I’ve got one up on you. I’ve got all of that and my friends give me food. Game over. I win.

Seriously, two ladies I know, Barbara Jane and Mary Virginia drop homemade sweet rolls off at my house for no reason whatsoever. I love those ladies. At any given time I have a jar of homemade preserves on my office desk from a friend who wanted to share their love of a particular food item with me.

I receive homemade bread, casseroles, pies, cakes, and cookies all of the time.

Even my mother-in-law sent me 10 pounds of Benton’s Bacon for my birthday. You’ll never hear a let-me-tell-you-about-my-mother-in-law joke crossing my lips.

It is Benton’s Bacon, and my Tennessee friend, Allan Benton, that has me feeling so grateful this morning. I grew up in a neighborhood of women who were, and are, excellent cooks. My love of food can be tracked to three places: My grandmother’s dining table, my mother’s gumbo, and the kitchens of the ladies in my old neighborhood on Bellewood Drive in Hattiesburg, Miss.

In addition to the aforementioned Mary Virginia and Barbara Jane, another lady, Virginia Culpepper, helped form my love for food and my appreciation of friendships.

I ran into Virginia in the bookstore last week and she told me that she and her husband had just returned from a trip to Tennessee where they visited with Allan Benton. I write this column on my laptop at 6:00 a.m. sitting in my kitchen eating a biscuit stuffed with Benton’s sausage and feeling grateful for good friends like Virginia.

Benton’s ham and bacon is world-class. I have eaten Jamon Iberico, the Spanish ham that many describe as the best in the world. I have been to the premiere village where the best hams are made and followed the process of the black pigs eating acorns all of the way through a facility that had 100,000 hams hanging and curing in the same building. I have eaten prosciutto crudo and cotto all over Italy. To me, no pork in Spain or Italy compares to Benton’s.

At our restaurants we serve several dishes using Benton’s ham and bacon, but the one thing that we don’t use is his sausage. Due to government regulations, he doesn’t ship sausage. It can only be purchased at Benton’s Smoky Mountain Country Hams facility on US 411 in Madisonville, Tenn.

Benton and his lovely wife stayed at my home a couple of years ago. He came bearing pork. That’s the kind of houseguest everyone needs. As we were carrying his suitcases into the house, he grabbed an ice chest out of his trunk. Once in the kitchen he opened it and it was full of ham and bacon. I was ecstatic. Though ecstatic turned to elation when he dug deeper in the chest and pulled out a few pounds of sausage.

I don’t eat breakfast sausage very often, but if I lived near Madisonville, Tenn. It would be a daily routine.

A true friend tells you when you’ve messed up. A true friend walks beside you when you’re down. A true friend gives you sausage. It’s not about what one gets out of a friendship. It’s not about stuff, and it’s truly not the gift, itself. It’s great to receive food, but there is something special behind the gift of food. It’s the intent.

My grandfather used to say, “You should judge a man, not by his wealth, but by the depth and breadth of his friendships.” He also used to say, “A rich man has his first dollar. A wealthy man has his first friend.” Today I feel wealthier than Bill Gates and Warren Buffet combined. Not because I have a lot of money in the bank— I don’t— I have the best friends on the planet.

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