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."
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."