By Robert St. John
When I opened the door to my office the other day, the aroma hit me right away. It took about two seconds to decipher the origin of the smoky fragrance, and I hoped it was coming from the room that houses my desk in the back of the building.
The office where I work on a daily basis is not connected to any of the restaurants. It is in an entirely separate facility nearby. So any food fragrances are foreign to these walls.
There weren’t any large shipping boxes in the front of the office, so I knew there hadn’t been a food delivery that day. This was a good sign. The source of that superb scent was probably not going to follow its typical path and be taken to one of the restaurant kitchens.
As I walked down the hall toward the back of the building, the smell of expertly cured and smoked pork filled the air. It was emanating from my office. It was, as I had suspected, Allan Benton’s bacon, and I was ecstatic.
In 12 years of columns and well over 500,000 words published, I have never used the adjective “otherworldly.” Actually, I am not sure if the Webster’s definition of that word even applies to foodstuffs. But that is the word I am about to use.
Benton’s bacon is otherworldly.
Apparently, some friends from Hattiesburg had been travelling down I-75 near Madisonville, Tenn., and – did what any wise person should do when they are within 60 miles of Madisonville – pulled into the Benton’s Smoky Mountain Country Hams facility. Benton was on site, and when he found out they were from Hattiesburg, asked them to deliver several pounds of bacon to me, an early Christmas gift. I love that guy.
There are only a few people I have met in my 51 years who consistently achieve perfection in their chosen field. None do it with the ease and passion of Benton. He cures and smokes pork the way it was done hundreds of years ago. It takes time, it takes skill, and it takes patience. It also takes a lot of love.
While spending several weeks in Spain last year, eating Jamon Iberico – universally recognized as the best ham in the world – I followed the process from the pigs foraging for acorns under the cork and oaks, to the curing process, and finally the plate. One afternoon I spent a substantial amount of time in a room where 150,000 of the world’s finest hams were hanging and wasn’t as impressed as I had been with the original nickel tour I received in Benton’s facility over a decade ago.
Granted, Benton’s hams are entirely different than the hams of Spain, but they taste like “home.” In October my mother-in-law sent 12 pounds of Benton’s bacon to me as a birthday present (and my wife says that I’m “hard to shop for”).
Food is the perfect gift. As I grow older, and as my desire for material junk wanes, I appreciate simpler, more satisfying – and flavorful – presents.
A man I know makes the best fig preserves I have ever tasted, and on occasion and when the figs “had a good year,” he brings a few jars by my office. I have written for several decades about my longtime across-the-street neighbor, Mary Virginia McKenzie and her orange sweet rolls. Those sourdough sweet rolls magically find their way to my doorstep just before holidays and on rare occasions throughout the year. I have eaten them every Christmas morning for 51 years, save last year when I didn’t have the foresight to ship a few dozen to Spain for the holidays.
The Christmas season usually bring a small metal tin of my other longtime across-the-street neighbor, Larry Foote’s salty pecans, one friend brings cheese straws, another brings Martha Washington candy.
My grandmother made fudge cake. At least that’s what she called it. It wasn’t fudge and it wasn’t cake. They were actually brownies, but I guess that’s what they called them in Nashville and so that’s what we still call them. I would give anything I own to see her walk through my door again with a tin of fudge cake.
This year I will give honey from the hives at my garden and olive oil shipped from my friend Enzo in Tuscany.
This year put on an apron. Bake a batch of cookies or brownies. Walk them over to your neighbor’s house and let them know you truly care. You took the time to prepare something special for them, a gift with a story, and one that means something to you as well.
Food is love. Food is the perfect gift. The only thing that might compare is my newly reborn obsession with vinyl albums. Music is great, but it usually doesn’t taste very good.
Robert St. John is a restaurateur, chef and author of numerous books.