Topic: "Ham I Am" (3)
The A & W Drive-in on Route 11 in Madisonville, Tennessee, is the last of its kind. It is the last A & W Root Beer drive-in with curb service in all of Middle Earth. Frodo thought that was pretty cool, and absent the Memorials to the War Dead in the town square (which separated the deceased by race as late as World War I), he never really thought there was much else about Madisonville to merit his attention. That is, until he was introduced to Allan Benton.
Benton is considered perhaps the greatest ham and bacon smoker living today. Benton's bacon or prosciutto-style ham can be found on menus from the Highland Bar & Grill in Birmingham to the Restaurant Eugene in Atlanta. What is even more interesting is the background of the 60 year-old who works 70 hours a week mixing salt, brown sugar, red pepper flakes, and patience into a ham before beginning the curing and smoking process. Benton has a Master's in Psychology and was teaching High School when his pay checks weren't meeting his needs in 1973. It was at that point that he bought the Hicks' Hams cinder-block building, and found five others to work with him in the new venture.
Touring the facility is a real hoot, and says a lot about why the South End of the Shire is the best. "We have all the latest computer technology for the smokehouse," said Benton as he exhibited the hickory and apple wood stacked next to a small wood stove he bought in 1980 for $50 from his cousin. "I've kept the vent tilted at the same angle for 27 years," he stated.
Making bacon started the way Allan Benton does it, before big-farm industry added nitites and nitrates to speed and cheat the process. But moving 400-600 hams and 250-400 pork bellies a week is a lot for a small-scale organization, and none of Benton's children have any interest in taking over the family business. Benton swears that as a "self-professed hillbilly," he'll never move or sell the business. "It becomes who you are. I've just been very lucky and I'm too dumb to quit."
Frodo learned that it takes up to 15 months to "cure" a ham, and that Berkshire hogs are prized for their "marbling" and "tenderness." Benton is not really sure if they make the best hams, but he keeps a supply "just in case they are."
Frodo couldn't help but picture a new sign out front someday, perhaps it will read something like this "Hobbit Hams, Fit for a King." Aragorn would love it.