Bacon Lust: Passionate Local Bacon Maker Allan Benton and Knoxville BaconFest 2010 Lead Us All Into Temptation

Photo with no caption

photo by David Luttrell

Ah, the temptress. Smoky. Sultry. Sizzling. The scent, the texture, it cannot be ignored. One slip, a nibble. It is never enough. Another, and another, and another.

Sated? For a time. But the longing for the next encounter always returns, now perhaps entwined with the desire for a new way to enjoy.

Such is the allure of bacon. Many a straightlaced diner has succumbed to its unctuous, fat-laden siren song; even the resolve of a devoted, committed vegetarian has toppled before this irresistible lure.

Bacon. Here. Now. Yum. Mine.

And while this is an age-old tale of seduction, it has a new twist. Led by innovative chefs, charmers one and all, bacon is slinking from the breakfast table and the diner BLT into heretofore forbidden places: the trendiest savories, the most decadent dessert delights, in home skillets and on swank dining room small plates. And the passion is brazen: Our city will host its own BaconFest this weekend, and hundreds will attend, reveling in creamy, crispy, chewy, lascivious, heady treats without inhibition.

“Oh, bacon,” Knoxville swoons.

Sweet, sweet temptation, this bacony goodness. Lead on.

Laura Sohn Can Bring on the Bacon

Were there an East Tennessee Power of Bacon traveling display, Laura Sohn would be Exhibit A. Owner of Mockingbird Events since September, she’s co-founder of Knoxville’s BaconFest, which is going public for the first time this weekend. But for 10 years, she ate no meat—until she met three irresistible slices of bacon. “I decided when I was 12 to be vegetarian, and went all through college,” she says. “Somehow one Christmas I had a BLT, I have no recollection why. It was a slippery slope from there.”

Laura Sohn standing before her subject of worship at Benton's Smoky Mountain Country Hams.

photo by David Luttrell

Laura Sohn standing before her subject of worship at Benton's Smoky Mountain Country Hams.

While she still eats little of other meats, Sohn is really into bacon, habitually buying 8-10 pounds of dry-cured, artisan bacon on excursions to Allan Benton’s Smoky Mountain Country Hams in Madisonville, Tenn., to cook for herself and friends or to give away. “Since I started eating Allan’s bacon, the flavor is so much stronger, I can be satisfied with two or three pieces,” she says. “Regular bacon, I can eat a shit ton.”

Just a week or so ago, her mother fixed her delicious scrambled eggs and bacon with the Food City store brand; Sohn enjoyed every mouthful. But it is Benton’s that put Sohn into the bacon big leagues. In 2006, she read about the smokehouse in a Gourmet magazine article written by John T. Edge, and along with Anna Bogle, “an amazing chef and food lover,” made the 35-minute trip out to the Benton smokehouse in Madisonville, the only place to buy his bacon by the pound in this area. They brought back their bounty for a bourbon-and-bacon party for some local friends. “That’s one of the great things about Knoxville, the number of people who love food” says Sohn.

Further pilgrimages to Benton’s led to long conversations with Benton, and to creation of an annual tradition: some insider foodies hobnobbing at a modest BaconFest, always private. Then, this past September, Sohn left her job as personal assistant to Ashley Capps, president of AC Entertainment, to form her own events company, Mockingbird Events, specializing in niche food and bar events centered around community and sustainability. When she was casting around for her first public event, BaconFest made sense.

They’d already dipped a toe in the water with last year’s event, holding it at the Pilot Light and scoring a logo designed by Jesse and Lauren Wagner of Nathanna Design. “We were feeling like it would be fun to be able to invite more people this year, make it a competition,” says Sohn. Response has been overwhelming. Part one of the event, a Swine and Dine Feb. 26 featuring small plates from the creme-de-la-gravy of local chefs paired with an appropriate wine, sold out its 50 reservations two weeks ago. Part two, Saturday Feb. 27’s semi-competitive “bacon-off” at Ironwood Studios, is expected to draw many more, some to sample the pot-luck foodstuffs, some to enter the bacon-off in such categories as “Best Use of Bacon Grease” and “Most Pork/Bacon Used In a Dish.” Allan Benton himself will be in attendance, and is graciously providing Benton products for the Friday night chefs.

It will be hectic, but Sohn isn’t letting that distract her from her personal goals: eating bacon, cooking bacon, cooking bacon for friends, and thinking and talking about bacon. “We’ll have a few things on Saturday from Allan as well,” she says. “Something I want to try to make for Saturday is all Benton’s bacon: I want it to look like a tiered wedding cake, for people to snack on.”

Bacon's Appalachian Ties

Now, Sohn and Knoxville are by no means the first to have a BaconFest—no one seems to be claiming that honor, but there are certainly pre-existing bacon festivals in Portland, Ore., Kansas City, San Francisco, and as a benefit for Dad’s Garage Theater in Atlanta, just to name a few. But our area does have a unique right to be fond of bacon: It’s dead set in our Appalachian heritage, according to the experts like the one Sohn grew up with: her father, Mark Sohn, a 30-year resident of Pikeville, Ky., and Appalachian cookery expert.

Mark Sohn, Author and Appalachian cookery expert

Mark Sohn, Author and Appalachian cookery expert

“Bacon is very important in the traditional mountain diet,” says Mark Sohn. “The pigs could run freely in the hills and take care of themselves, and then in November or December, many families would kill a hog. This Hog Killing Day was a day of abundance, everyone would gather. The thing with the pork and the hams and the bacon from that day is that they were needed to last a long time. So they were cured, salted, smoked, and aged in the process, and that adds a great deal of flavor. And the bacon in turn would add a great deal of flavor to the sustenance foods in the mountains—the green beans, the corn bread, the dry beans. All the flavor comes from the bacon.”

One little detail there, though. When Mark Sohn says bacon, he means pork. From a pig. Nothing else qualifies as flavorful, or as part of Appalachian heritage. “Turkey bacon? That stuff is not bacon, it’s flavored meat,” he says gently, but incredulously. “Kosher” bacon, made of beef, like that famously served at the now-shuttered Harold’s deli? “Kosher bacon, that’s craziness,” Sohn adds. “Turkey bacon, veggie bacon, those are all other foods; a different kind of thing.”

Our kind of thing, the hardscrabble but pride-filled tradition of using free-range, cured pork as a seasoning fundamental, may have paved the way for the home cooks and trendy chefs experimenting with bacon hereabouts, a trend Sohn says has caught hold nationwide. “I don’t have statistics, just a feeling, but as I’ve been traveling to promote my latest book [Appalachian Home Cooking: History, Culture, and Recipes], I’ve noticed bacon has gone up in popularity in just the past two or three years,” he says. “I think it’s as foods have become more savory instead of sweet; as sugar has gone down in popularity, bacon’s gone up.”

In Knoxville, new takes on bacon include Benton’s bacon served atop a crisp fried oyster and creamed spinach and below Hollandaise sauce as part of Oysters Rockafella at the swank downtown S & W Grand, and trendsetting RouXbarb chef Bruce Bogartz’ “Rabbi Goldstein’s Shrimp and Grits,” which include Benton’s bacon and smoked tomato vinaigrette.

Nama manager Stanton Webster demonstrates the Knoxville home chef’s fascination with bacon in new recipes: A direct descendant of sustenance farmers, he too considers bacon a prime experimental ingredient. “I love pork, I love bacon, I love all of it,” says Webster, who was formerly general manager for La Costa under Gregg White’s ownership, and studied classics at the University of Tennessee. “While bacon is a ‘trending topic’ as it were right now, it’s something that’s been there always, at least in my life. I grew up on a farm in Middle Tennessee, and my dad did, too. It took dad years and years to get back to eating pork, because in his family’s lean years, that’s all they had.”

Webster is married and has his first child on the way, and says he uses bacon more as a cooking element; no noshing on strips of bacon at his place. “I keep bacon grease on hand to use as an ingredient, for corn bread, or if I need fat for sauteing. And in vinaigrettes, I’ve been using a little bacon fat instead of olive oil to make warm dressing for salad. I love good smoky bacon fat, good cider vinegar, and molasses for that.”

Webster, who will curate wines at the Swine and Dine portion of BaconFest 2010, likes Benton’s for “most all his bacon uses,” and holds both man and bacon in the highest esteem. “I made a visit to the roadside store. They are so into what they do and they do it so well. For me, it was like mixing pork and smoke and church. Benton’s bacon spoke to every element of my Southern upbringing.”

Allan Benton’s Blessed Bacon

It never ceases to amaze Allan Benton. Like when he’s siting in the doctor’s office, leafing through an old Bon Appetit magazine, and sees a list of 12 Best Restaurants. “Four of them were our customers,” recalls Benton. “We’re just really blessed, really lucky.”

Allan Benton's Dry-curing and heirloom hogs have made him Bacon Maker to the Stars—and a local foodie hero.

photo by David Luttrell

Allan Benton's Dry-curing and heirloom hogs have made him Bacon Maker to the Stars—and a local foodie hero.

Then there was the time a year or so back when he saw Table Fifty-Two Restaurant in Chicago on his television screen, and Michelle and Barack Obama coming out the front door. “I said, ‘Dang, I sell to Table Fifty-Two!’ and didn’t think any more about it. Then the chef was nice enough to call me the next day, ‘I want to tell you, they loved your bacon!’ That was where the Obamas ate right before they got on the plane to go to the Inauguration.”

From a concrete block building on 411, close enough to Knoxville for us to claim him and he us, Benton has overseen a curing operation since 1973, never butchering but always using pork “grown on pasture, never concrete, with no antibiotics added to the feed,” he says. “Our goal is something that’s as good as what’s produced in Europe.”

His country hams and bacon make their way to the French Laundry’s Thomas Keller (“he doesn’t use much product, only buys something every two months or so”), to Momofuku’s David Chang in Manhattan, to Wolfgang Puck and Emeril—among others. Benton’s a player in the super-charged atmosphere of vogue restaurants and chefs with star power, but he still works six to seven days a week and sees himself and his wife of 36 years as “plain country folks.” He says not one day passes that he doesn’t count his blessings, and chief among them is meeting Chef John Fleer at Blackberry Farm, the luxury chateau in Walland. “This was probably 1993, I’m just guessing, I don’t know, but he started sharing my products with the chefs who visit Blackberry Farm, single-handedly started spreading my name.” Blackberry owner Sam Beall is another “extraordinary person” Benton credits with publicizing his cured meats. “If they couldn’t repair the lawnmower up there, I’d be up there to cut their grass,” he says. “I cannot begin to repay my debt to them.”

Benton marvels at the creative ways chefs use his products. “I’ve actually been served bacon cotton candy by Sean Brock [at McCrady’s in Charleston, S.C.]. And a chef in New York City made scallops in a bacon consomme... I can still imagine it on my tastebuds.”

His own is the only bacon Benton cares for. “I make the same kind of bacon I grew up eating—I never liked packing-house bacon,” he says. “My favorite is a bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwich with a tomato from my garden.”

Local Knoxvillians Makin' Bacon

Maybe there are some people coming to BaconFest 2010 who don’t have at least a little crush on bacon. But Lindsay Beeson, who will be providing bacon toffee candy bars, bacon toffee ice cream in maple cones, and bacon bourbon caramel corn as half of the catering group Craft and Spoon (with Meg Parrish), is clearly besotted with the stuff. “It’s like ice cream or something, just kind of this genius food that’s so simple but so very satisfying.”

Lindsay Beeson and Meg Hunter-Parrish

photo by David Luttrell

Lindsay Beeson and Meg Hunter-Parrish

And Beeson was onto bacon-in-strange-places baking early on, developing a recipe for Knoxville Bacon Chocolate Chip Cookies almost a year ago to sell through Coffee and Chocolate and Old City Java, and coming up with Bacon Toffee late last fall. “I started using Benton’s bacon a couple of months ago, and I had to adjust my recipe to account for the smokiness, thus bacon toffee was born,” she says. “I mostly use it for the chocolate chip cookies, but I do plan to make toffee bars, wrap ’em up and sell them at the farmer’s market this year.”

She’s not sure how long bacon’s going to be the cool addition to sweets, like Magpie’s maple bacon cupcake, but her affection is unswerving. “I love bacon. I always, always steal a little cut of it when I candy it for the cookies. Always,” she says. “And for foods that are not sweets, I think bacon will never not be a thing; the love for bacon is pretty mighty.”

Webster is in charge of determining suitable wine pairings for all the small plates being prepared by Beeson and other food professionals for the (already sold out) Swine and Dine event. “It will all depend what role the bacon is playing in the dish, but typically with cured meat, Old World-style wines are best—Spanish, Italian, French,” he says.

He’ll start with an unoaked chardonnay with the first course, one that’s “only seen steel,” thus offering a little more true expression of the varietal. No doubt it will be wonderful, but who will be paying attention to the wine at that point? How can a mere wine vie for attention in the presence of Nama general manager and super-chef Holly Hambright’s first course: lobster bisque with a big ole bacon-wrapped seared scallop on top?

Really, how can any ordinary comestible compete with bacon? Don’t ask Sohn; this week she’s thinking BaconFest, but she most always has some bacony analysis and creativity in the works. She makes a mean bacon pimiento cheese; she’s got this bacon-greens-poached eggs thing down to an art. “Doneness is a big issue,” she intones gravely. “I go back and forth between liking to be able to feel the texture of the fat, and wanting the bacon cooked more. A couple of weekends ago, I cooked collar greens and poached eggs for brunch and really made the bacon super crisp. The crispness of the bacon with runny poached eggs was perfect.

“I think, especially with Benton’s, that bacon’s an essential flavor. It kind of encompasses the essence of pork. And another great part about it, despite the extremely distinct strong flavor, bacon is also flexible, can work well as a flavor accent.”

Bacon, Sohn will tell you, can take a determined cook to many heights. And she’s quite serious as she delivers her parting shot, her bacon dream: “I really want to try to make a Cruz Farm Buttermilk/Benton’s bacon ice cream.”

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