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Robert St. John

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

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June 3, 2020

If I never have to endure another shelter-in-place order, I will die happy. I just wasn’t wired for such activities. I am not a homebody. Never have been, never will be. I like to stay in constant motion. It’s always been that way.

As a kid, I might have been able to stay in one place and watch Saturday morning cartoons for an hour or so, but I was usually doing one or two other things while watching television. It’s the same today. When I’m home, I typically have my laptop open in my lap doing research for work, the tv on watching something, and the text feature on my phone in constant reply mode. That’s the way I like it.

Had they had a name for it when I was a kid, I would have been the poster child for ADHD. Instead, they just said, “he’s hyper.” I don’t spend any time lamenting the fact that I have the attention span of a gnat, and I don’t take any drugs for the condition, I just go with the flow and use it to my advantage. Some call it ADHD, I call it multitasking. That’s life. Move on.

I was wired to stay active and on the move. That is why this pandemic shut down has been so hard for me. Not only that, but my true loves— outside of my family and friends— are my restaurants, and at one time or another during this pandemic, almost all of them were shuttered.

There have been bright spots along the way. I cooked with my son a lot and spent extra time with my daughter. It was a treat having them both at home with my wife and me. We alternated theme nights for supper and went a week or two where each one of us took a night to prepare supper. During a seven-week span when the weather was almost San Diego-perfect every day, we sat on our front porch every evening at dusk. I think when I look back onto these strange days, that will be what I remember most. That, and my friend Allan Benton’s bacon.

About three weeks into this crisis a packaged arrived at my house. I knew instantly what it was— not because I could see the return address, but— because I could smell smoke. Not the kind of smoke one smells when a house is on fire, but the beautiful variety of smoke that comes from Allan Benton’s small smoked ham facility in Madisonville, Tennessee. The kind of smoke that permeates a shipping box and releases into the home of the recipient.

They should make a candle out of that wonderful aroma.

I opened the box and there was a nice note from Benton that read: “Covid-19 survival kit. Hope you are staying safe. Allan.” The next day, even more ham and bacon arrived. That note read: “The other half of the Covid-19 Survival Kit! The two of you have the most perfect Southern home. I hope it’s a little more perfect when you smell bacon cooking. Allan” Everything is better when you smell bacon cooking. They were the perfect gifts, at the perfect time, from a man who produces perfect bacon.

My friend Allan Benton has been curing hams and bacon for almost 50 years, though the business has been in operation in Madisonville, Tenn. for almost 75 years. Madisonville is located a few miles off of I-75 between Chattanooga and Knoxville. You may never have heard of Madisonville or Benton, but I can guarantee you that all of the top chefs from New York to Napa Valley know exactly where it is, and who cures pork there.

Back in 1947, a dairy farmer named Albert Hicks started curing hams and making bacon for his neighbors. In 1973, Benton, a former high school guidance counselor, purchased the business, and luckily for us, has been smoking and curing pork using the tried and true methods passed down from generations of Smoky Mountain farmers ever since.

Benton’s bacon is perfect. I am convinced that when God invented bacon, this is how He wanted it to taste. When I first met Benton, I asked him why his bacon was so superior to the store-bought variety, he stated, “We do it like your grandparents would have done it. Like my grandfather did it, and like Albert Hicks did it.”

Benton’s is to bacon what Ferrari is to Volkswagen. It’s a vehicle, it’s just not in the same league. Mass-produced commercial pork bellies are injected with brine in the packing house, flash-smoked in a smoke room, and— 24 hours later— are packaged and shipped. It’s quick, it’s easy, it’s profitable, and the results taste nothing like your great-grandfather’s bacon.

The Benton process for curing and smoking bacon takes time— a minimum of five weeks. First Benton mixes together a dry-rub blend of salt and brown sugar, rubs the pork bellies, and stacks them in a 38-degree cooler for two weeks. Next, he transfers the bellies to another cooler where they hang in a 45-degree environment for a week and a half. They are then moved to an aging room for two more weeks before they are taken to Benton’s smokehouse where they spend 48 hours in an intense billowing fog of thick hickory smoke.

“You wouldn’t believe how much smoke you can generate out of an old wood-burning stove,” Benton says. I believe it because I have seen the little potbelly smoker, the smoke room, and— most importantly— I have eaten the end result.

I have written about Benton’s bacon many times over the last 15 years or so. The reader should note that it’s not like other bacon. Some people don’t get it. And most people overcook it. The fact that it has been cured and smoked for so long means that a lot of the moisture has been removed from the protein. I love crisp bacon. But when cooking Benton’s bacon, one has to remove it from the cast-iron skillet when it looks about halfway finished. This is very important. If you cook Benton’s bacon as long as you would typically cook a commercially produced bacon it will dry out, turn ashen, and be a far inferior product. Just remember that, even though it looks uncooked, you should remove it from the skillet and place it on a paper towel. Let it sit for two or three minutes, and you will then taste the most unbelievable bacon you have ever eaten.

This shut down has been hard on my friend, Allan, too. Pork producers can’t find people to work the processing plants and they’ve had to put down tens of thousands of hogs. As with other businesses, it’s more profitable to stay at home and draw the stimulus check than to go to work. Though there’s light at the end of the smoke-filled tunnel. We are several weeks away from the nation being in full production in its meatpacking plants.

So, when I look back on these past few months, I’ll have some fond memories despite the craziness in the outside world. I will have spent quality time with my wife and two children. We would have cooked together, watched sunsets together, played games together, and received unexpected gifts of bacon and ham from a friend who probably wasn’t in the best business environment to be giving away food. But that is the kind of guy that Allan Benton is. He’s solid and genuine to the core.


Benton ships anywhere in the U.S. and the bacon keeps for up to four months in the refrigerator. Benton’s Smoky Mountain Country Hams: 423-442-5003



This week’s recipe: Summer Morning Casserole

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