Welcome to the Golden Age of American Food

Despite the outcry about the American diet, and despite the obesity crisis, there is no better time to be a food citizen. Here's why things are getting better, fast.

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There are, in a region that has deeper food traditions than most, also the old-school food makers in the South, and we prize their stories most of all. They face their own challenges, though. The most urgent question: To whom do I pass my business?

In the East Tennessee foothills along Highway 411 is an easily missed cement-block building that is home to Benton's Smoky Mountain Country Hams, producer of some very fine, long-aged hams and the most revered bacon in the nation. The owner is Allan Benton, 65, who bought the business from another smoker 39 years ago but did not sniff national success for more than 20 years. Benton has a deep and well-honed appreciation of childhood roots in the deepest rural remove, with memories of his family's hogs being let loose in the hollows to feast on acorns in autumn, before the animals were lured home by the promise of easier feed and then slaughtered. The worth of a hog was boasted about according to the quantity of its lard: precious available calories for a lean, poor population.

"I'm doing what my family did for generations," Benton, himself a lean Southern man, says. "It truly was just sustenance food for poor Appalachian hillbillies. We didn't have a lot of money, but we ate really well. That's probably what inspired me to do what I do. My father said, 'Sooner or later, quality will sustain.'"

For Benton, it was later rather than sooner. He was aging ham four to six times longer than the big factories but charging no more. He survived on the appreciation of a few locals who knew ham from ham, and on the custom of greasy spoons and other eateries. Eventually, though, chefs took up his case: first at Blackberry Farm, then at gatherings of the Southern Foodways Alliance, and then, most famously, by New York chef David Chang. Other chef-stars in the Benton fan club: Brock, Stitt, Besh, Colicchio. He is, among smokers, a rock star. There's a four-week waiting list for bacon on his website.

The patronage of chefs, whose menus have become a storytelling form in their own right, is pure sunlight in the craft-foods ecology. "I think," Benton reflected one night with satisfaction over a nip of Pappy Van Winkle rye, "that chefs deserve 98% of the credit for my success."

But Benton has a problem: None of his children want to smoke hams. He has no heir apparent through apprenticeship, either. A crazy-hard worker, he is not slowing down, but the future of a national treasure is cloudy. I asked him how many young people in East Tennessee, far from the emerging food-hipness node of Nashville, are interested in the sort of thing he does. Few, he says. "Not that many are willing to step out and make a commitment."

Then he paused, perhaps a bit wistful, and mentioned a business 50 miles or so up the road. "There aren't a lot of people like Colleen Cruze at Cruze Dairy," Benton told me. "I can only imagine what she will do in the future."

I had already heard of Cruze from Southern Living magazine's Jennifer Cole, who is one of the South's finest food hounds. I arranged by text to meet Cruze on her family's dairy farm in the lush hills outside Knoxville.

Cruze Dairy Farm produces buttermilk and ice cream from its own Jersey cows, including a blackberry buttermilk that's like a smooth, Southern-accented kefir. Cruze's father, Earl, now almost 70, has been milking cows in the area for more than 60 years and watched the almost total collapse of a local milk-bottling industry: "You'd have thought nothing but an act of God could have shut all that down, it was so prosperous, but all those dairies are gone."

To survive, to have a story to tell about the family's buttermilk, which Earl believes is a secret to good health, the Cruze family—with lots of direction from mom Cheri—have lately found a surprising country-hipster groove: They make a home for Japanese exchange-program interns on their small farm and favor a tiny crew that Tweets and Instagrams. The symbol of this groove is Colleen, 25, who is featured on the buttermilk label, hair swept back, walking in a golden field.

"When I graduated from college and came back to work on the dairy," she says, "I thought having all girls to sell the product might make for a good atmosphere. ... We were going off the idea of the traditional dairymaids. Once girls do something and make it look fun, then other girls are interested." The girls go to farmers' markets and offer "milk shots" in their dairymaid outfits. The farm's website, cruzefarmgirl.com, is Brooklyn-cool.

As we talked, generators hummed in the background, keeping fresh batches of cardamom ice cream frozen. The power was out from a ferocious windstorm that had also swept over Allan Benton's house the night before. We were sitting under a shade tree—Earl, Cheri, Colleen, and the young Japanese interns, who appeared mostly baffled by the Tennessee storytelling that flowed, rich and thick, whenever I asked a Cruze a question.

"Colleen's young," Earl said, satisfied that the Cruzes may have found the formula to keep the family business alive. "And they all work hard. As long as we can keep it going, I'm happy."

 

 
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