Every year, usually some time between Thanksgiving and Christmas, I bring out all the good stuff. I put out an assortment of foods I’ve picked up as I traveled in the months before and brought home to share with my family.
Some years it has been a feast of German chocolates, Wisconsin cheese and Pecans from Texas. Other years I have jams and jellies and sauces from around the country, around the world.
This year when my children come home for the holidays it will be all about the taste of Tennessee.
I spent two autumn weeks in East Tennessee this year and I came home with a suitcase full of tasty souvenirs: two kinds of honey--a raw wildflower honey from Appalachain Bee, a woman-owned artisanal honey company in Ocoee, and a bottle of sourwood honey I picked up on the Tennessee side of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I have rich buttermilk cheese from Sweetwater Valley Farm in Philadelphia, Tennessee and a box of Ole Smoky taffy from Gatlinburg, a sweet treat I remembered from childhood trips to the mountains. And I couldn’t resist a box of mini Moon Pies from Chattanooga, another childhood favorite.
But this year I brought home the bacon. It isn’t just any old bacon, it’s Benton’s bacon. Walk into any upscale restaurant, coast to coast, and there’s a good chance Benton’s Smoky Mountain Ham or bacon will be on the menu. It’s sold in gourmet markets and it can be pricy, but when you stop by the smokehouse in Madisonville,Tennessee, they’ll pull it right out of the box and sell it to you for just about the same price the chefs pay.
The store is plain and no-nonsense with not much more than a display case and a cash register. And there’s usually a line leading from one to the other.
From the front, you can see smoked meats hanging on racks in the back of the building and I watched as a woman packed big boxes of bacon to ship out to restaurants across the country. Men were busy, moving meat from the smokehouse to the slicing room.
The man at the counter told me they sometimes struggle to keep up with demand. but that wasn’t always the case. Allan Benton bought the smokehouse in the late 1970s from the man who started the business in 1947 and he’s been making ham and bacon in the traditional way--dry cured or hickory smoked--since then.
The business struggled at times until several years ago when Blackberry Farm placed an order. A few days later Allan Benton got a call from the chef saying he wanted more. Word got out quickly and it wasn’t long before leading chefs around the country had Benton’s on the menu. Suddenly, Smoky Mountain bacon and hams were flying out the door.
“We smoke it and ship it, the man behind the counter told me. “And when it’s gone, it’s gone. You just have to wait ‘till we catch up.”
I wasn’t taking any chances. I bought three pounds of bacon and put the package in my suitcase. (Benton’s meats are cured so they don’t need to be refrigerated to ship.) If I’d had room for one of their country hams, I would have put one of those in, but I did buy a couple of ham steaks--my husband’s favorite-- and brought them home especially for him.
So, when we all get together in a week or two, I’ll have delicious things from other places to share with my family--dried cranberries from Wisconsin, a bottle of Champagne I brought home from France, and more--but I have a feeling Mr. Benton’s bacon will steal the show.
Cheryl-Anne Millsap’s audio essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the U.S. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org