The story below is an excerpt from our Jan./Feb. 2016 issue. For the rest of this story and more like it subscribe today, view our digital edition or download our FREE iOS app!
From gardens and forests, farms and factories, smokehouses and kitchens, here’s a state-by-state taste of locally prized food products.
Here are some old favorites and new surprises we’ve found while driving the backroads and byways of the Blue Ridge region.
Country Ham in Tennessee
What, I ask my students at East Tennessee State University, is the most vital element in Appalachian cookery? It’s not something off the shelf or out of the refrigerator, I tell them. That special ingredient, I say, is time.
Visit Benton’s Smoky Mountain Country Hams in Madisonville, Tennessee, and you grasp the concept immediately. Inside what owner Allan Benton calls a “hole-in-the-wall business” are hams aged 11, 14, 16 months. A six-week cure is not in the cards for Benton. He patterns his technique after his Scott County, Virginia, grandparents, who were subsistence farmers.
Rarely did Benton’s grandparents ever leave the farm. They made do with what they had. In the rare cases when he temporarily forgot their lessons of frugality, someone was always there to remind him—like Albert Hicks of Madisonville, who turned the ham and bacon business over to Benton back in 1973. Hicks once scolded Benton for not writing on both sides of a sheet of paper.
As he was growing his business, Benton also listened to his father, who told him that if he played the other man’s game, he would always lose. That other man’s game was the quick-curing of meat. Benton’s game is taking his time, letting the seasons and the curing blend he learned from his grandparents do their slow but sure work.
Benton applied the same patience to his career as he does to his curing process. He labored in relative obscurity for years, and then his products caught the attention of Blackberry Farm in Walland, Tennessee. Since then, his bacon has been called “the best in the world” by Esquire magazine. He has been described as “the godfather of pork.” And in 2015 he earned the prestigious Who’s Who of Food and Beverage in America Award from the James Beard Foundation in New York.
But all those accolades, and the fact that his name is on restaurant menus all across America, have not changed Allan Benton one iota. He credits his success to everyone he can think of but himself, and he remains a man of the mountains who has never forgotten the life lessons of his homeland.
Benton’s Smoky Mountain Country Hams
Beans and Tomatoes in Kentucky
Letters simply addressed to “Bean Man, Kentucky” get delivered to the Berea home of Bill Best. His reputation as an Appalachian seed saver is that strong. A native of western North Carolina, Best has spent most of his professional life in Kentucky, balancing a career as a physical education professor and swimming coach with an enduring drive to preserve heirloom varieties of beans and tomatoes.
Credentialed with a Ph.D. from the University of Massachusetts, Best is, at the same time, a man of the earth. He writes books at night and tends garden during the day.
Best and his family run the Sustainable Mountain Agriculture Center, with a mission to help make small farms in the region more viable. The descriptions in the organization’s extensive online seed catalog underscore the Best family’s respect for connection, continuity, and tradition.
“The Vinson Watts tomato is one that my friend, Vinson Watts, worked on for 52 summers,” Best tells me. “It now bears his name. He died in 2008 at the age of 78, having worked at Berea College for 12 years and at Morehead State University for the rest of his career. I’m dedicating my upcoming book to him.”
The original seed can be traced back to Lee County, Virginia. The Vinson Watts is the most disease-resistant tomato that the Bests sell, and Bill describes it as “a large pink tomato flavored with an excellent balance of sugars and acids.”
Best once told me of a Noble Bean, probably named for a family but also, I’d like to think, for its character. The bean once traveled from West Virginia to Oregon. The great-granddaughter of the man who brought the bean to the Northwest sent Best some seeds that weren’t germinating. They’d been in a container for about 20 years. Meticulously, he coaxed six seeds out of 100 to germinate. All of them died but one. From that one plant, he saved 11 seeds.
“If I’m lucky,” Best says, “I will have helped bring this bean back from extinction.”