Robert St. John Column

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, July 8, 2008

An eater’s pilgrimage can be a religious experience

Pilgrimages are typically once-in-a-lifetime events. If one is lucky he or she might get to make two or three pilgrimages over the course of their life.

People from all over the world take religious pilgrimages to Israel, Mecca, the Vatican, or Nepal. Golfers live to go to where it all began- St. Andrews in Scotland. Others would take out a second mortgage just to attend one of the earlier rounds of The Masters in Augusta.

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Football fanatics take pilgrimages to their shrine, The National Football League Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. Baseball groupies journey to Cooperstown, New York to view stats and memorabilia on every major league stand-out since the formation of the league (except Pete Rose).

I stopped playing football when I graduated high school. Baseball bores me. I don’t play golf, and I have no interest in going to Nepal. I eat.

For me, eating is a sport and at times it can be a religious experience. I take pilgrimages to individual out-of-the-way restaurants and to great restaurant cities. I love food. I eat for a living. It is what I do.

Over the past several years I have covered a lot of foodie ground between the two coasts. From Per Se and Aureole in New York to The French Laundry and Gary Danko in California. I take several culinary pilgrimages into New Orleans each month, and I have hole-in-the-wall diners tucked away in every small town in the South.

But there is one elusive destination that I have wanted to visit for the last three years. It’s not a white-tablecloth institution, a legendary neighborhood joint, or a longstanding out-of-the-way café. It’s not even a restaurant. It is a smokehouse.

Allan Benton has been curing hams, bacon, and prosciutto in Madisonville, Tenn. for 33 years.

Madisonville is located a few miles off of I-75 between Chattanooga and Knoxville and I will be driving through that area tomorrow. Benton has promised to give me a tour of his facility and I feel like a kid on Christmas Eve.

I am convinced that when God invented bacon, he wanted it to taste like Benton’s. Allan Benton smokes meats using methods passed down from generations of Smoky Mountain smokers. His process takes over six weeks, that compared to 24 hours in large commercial plants.

I wrote about Benton’s bacon a few years ago, and I still receive emails and talk to people at book signings or speeches who have become raving fans of Benton’s bacon.

The product sells itself. Actually, it sells too well. Benton has done such a great job smoking and curing meats, he has all of the business he can stand. He is playing a constant game of catch-up. If you place an order today it will be weeks before it arrives. Gourmet food retailer, Williams-Sonoma, with stores all over the country, tried to add Benton’s products to their lineup, but Benton told them, “thanks, but no thanks.” It’s truly Chuck Williams’ loss.

You can have Cooperstown, and St. Andrews. Give me a real smokehouse in Tennessee. Tomorrow, I’ll make the pilgrimage and get the grand tour.  

Next week: Details from the tour of Benton’s Smokey Mountain Country Hams.

(Robert St.John is an author, chef, restaurateur, and world-class eater. He is the author of seven books including the newly released New South Grilling. He can be reached at