A Visit With the King of Country Ham

·Food Editor

During Yahoo Y’All week, we’re celebrating the food culture of the American South. Expect profiles of cooks, makers, and bartenders, plus recipes showcasing the classics (and twists on those classics) you love.

Allan Benton didn’t know what prosciutto was when he first heard the word. “I thought it was pasta.” So when he saw the label in a deli case in Oxford, Mississippi back in 1973, he tried a taste.

“It looked like a country ham,” he says in the video above, produced by the Southern Foodways Alliance. “It didn’t look like too good of a country ham, actually.” And no surprise here: He and a friend decided his own ham was superior.  

He’s not alone on that one. Benton’s hickory-smoked bacon and country hams, which he makes in Madisonville, Tennessee, are world-renowned for their sharp flavor. Benton packs pork shanks in a mixture of salt, brown sugar, and red and black peppers and lets them sit in the mixture for a full two years. “I like some age on it,” he says. It’s a technique he learned growing up in Virginia, when his family, short on grocery money, raised everything they ate and preserved the hogs they butchered in November to sustain them through the winter.

Benton’s product has afforded him a comfortable life now. He can purchase whatever he wants at the grocery store. He could expand the business if he wanted, too. He’s been offered money to grow it, but “I don’t want to be somebody that puts his stuff in grocery stores all over America—that’s not my goal,” he says. “I’ve always wanted to make exceptional quality ham and bacon.” He produces the same amount of bacon in a month that larger packing houses do in a day, and he’s fine with that.

“I have never gotten tired of country-cured bacon or country-cured ham in my life.” (If it’s Benton’s country ham, that is.) Watch the video above for more on Allan’s story.

More Southern food stories:
5 Southern Desserts You Need to Try
What Is Jewish Southern Food?
Hopelessly Hooked on Pimento Cheese

Are you a fan of country ham? How do you eat it?