Our Eating Lives features stories about how food, cooking, and eating have shaped who we are and how we live.
This post is the second part of a two-part series:
If you thought that producing the most sought-after restaurant ingredient coast-to-coast had gone to Mr. Allan Benton’s head, you would be wrong. A small, soft-spoken, friendly man dressed in jeans and a polo shirt, Mr. Benton is waiting at the counter when I enter his store. He treats each customer in the same way, confident in his products and willing to talk about them, but with a focus on the local customers in front of him, not the famous restaurants he caters to long distance.
Around him, it is a bustling operation, even late on a Friday afternoon. To his right, rolling racks hold dozens of country hams. Behind him, most of his employees work on the shipping part of the business, vacuum-sealing entire low carts of unsliced slabs of the smokiest bacon in America. Before him, behind us, sits an indifferent deli case full of scattered meats and cheeses that do not get much attention in this world of ham and bacon. To his left, an old cash register shares space with various papers, handwritten or faded, taped to the wall behind it.
In front of me, a young man who has walked in with his daughter is next. “I’ve been told I need to try your bacon,” he says.
Mr. Benton steers him in front of the deli case to the low, cool, not cold, dairy case that holds the 1-lb packages of bacon. Benton’s bacon has patches of thick, lean meat, but plenty of fat, too. Since I hold three packages in my hand, I know that you can smell the smoke through the plastic.
A large man who has just finished paying yells out, “Bake it, don’t fry it.”
“This man taught me how to cook his bacon,” he says, pointing at Mr. Benton.
Mr. Benton nods. “Bake it at 350 degrees,” he says, “and don’t overlook it. You aren’t trying to burn the fat to a crisp.”
The large man nods like it’s gospel.
It is my turn. An older gentleman, a Benton’s veteran I’d guess, takes my order for 8 slices of country ham to go with the bacon I’ve set down on the counter. “Smoked?” He asks.
Was there any choice? “Yes,” I say.
A woman rolls a cart of sealed bacon past us. They are clearly working hard to try to keep up with the demand. The sound in the air is the saw slicing my smoked ham into eight perfect 1/4 inch thick slices.
My guy wraps my slices in butcher’s paper and begins to do his cost calculations with a pencil on the paper. “What’s this?” asks a country woman who has wandered in front of the cash register and is pointing at sealed plastic packages.
“Those are bacon ends and pieces. Usually we have prosciutto in there too, but we’re out.”
“What’s prosciutto?” she asks.
He looks her in the eye, gauging her. “Really, really old ham,” he says.
She nods, satisfied, if not understanding.
Having paid, I walk out past Mr. Benton, who is patiently explaining his products to a couple who have heard the buzz but don’t know what to do, and it strikes me, there are two Benton’s, the famous one, that is the ultimate validation of the bacon (and ham) used as a menu ingredient, and the products produced in a Tennessee town that is slow to understand what esoteric pork masterpieces exist in its midst.
And I, too, have my own quirk, for I may never fry a strip of this powerful bacon, may never finish a slice of the ham in a biscuit with some redeye gravy. I have driven eighty-some miles to buy it, not to eat it so much as to cook with it. The irony is that the greatest bacon in America and the smoky country ham are superb enhancers, spices if you will, depths of flavor that nothing else can get to, that make sophisticated dishes taste much better. Once again, the humble ingredient, the technique born from necessity, becomes incomparable.
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