Thursday, October 09, 2014

What’s shakin? Bacon!

I heard somewhere that the one food item that vegetarians found most difficult to part with was not the lofty filet mignon, or the humble hamburger, or even the eponymous main ingredient (after water) of chicken soup. Nope, what the meatless crave most is bacon.

Who can blame them?

Is there a better get-you-out-of-bed-in-the-morning smell than that wafting out of the frying pan, where a rasher or two (okay, why stop at two?) of bacon is popping and sizzling away in its own grease?

Is there any other ingredient that can so radically improve the most pedestrian of salads, going above and beyond what walnuts, dried cranberries, gorgonzola or barley are capable of?

Does anything hit the tummy spot faster on a summer afternoon than a BLT made with a fresh-picked tomato that actually smells, looks, and tastes like a tomato, not one of those pulpy pink substitutes that comes in the little plastic tray surrounded by cellophane?*

I am apparently not alone in my fondness for bacon:

In the past decade, bacon has grown into an industry generating more than $4 billion in annual sales. It has moved from a breakfast meat to a food trend touching an incredible array of consumer goods, both edible and not, from bacon-heavy fast-food burgers and bacon-infused desserts at fine dining restaurants to bottles of bacon-distilled vodka and even a sexual lubricant formulated to smell (and taste) like bacon. More than cupcakes, ramen, or kale, bacon has become the defining food trend of a society obsessed with food trends. (Source: Business Week)

Well, I don’t know about bacon-infused desserts, let alone about any bacon-ish sexual lubricant. (Sounds pretty ghastly to me.)

But I certainly can see that it would become more of a trend than the others.

Cupcakes I love. I have a niece who specializes in decorator cupcakes, and she’s come up with some great ones for family events over the last few years.

Last weekend, I went to a wedding that did without a wedding cake, and served cupcakes instead.

But I still don’t think that all these cupcake shops that have sprung up over the last few years are going to last. I know that one small chain – Crumbs? – went bust recently. And I just don’t see that the business model of selling cupcakes only is built to last. (For the record, there are at least four cupcake shops within a 10 minute walk of my home and, yes, I do occasionally buy cupcakes.)

Ramen I don’t see so much as a trend as it is an economic reality. Just as every young person who comes to Boston lives at some point in the Allston-Brighton neighborhood, so, too, does everyone who’s ever been a student go through a ramen phase. And it’s always good to have a package or two on hand when you only have five minutes to make yourself dinner and/or you have a salt craving and you don’t happen to have a deer lick nearby.

As for kale, I would characterize it as a crusade rather than a trend. I don’t mind kale, but I won’t go out of my way for it, and I prefer the ornamental variety to the edible.

Other food trends that are out there are food trucks, specialty coffees, Greek yogurt, and craft beer.

What sets bacon apart, trend-wise, is its origins.

Unlike most food trends, which start with the high-end foodie and/or hipster markets and find their way into the mainstream, bacon was in the mass market to begin with. And its boom isn’t being credited to some fancy-(checked-)pants TV chef coming up with bacon-infused anything. 

I’d never thought about the bacon market one way or the other, but it has historically been seasonal, peaking in the summer when BLT-lovers had access to the real-deal Ts:

When the tomatoes ran out by October, bacon retreated to the breakfast table till the next summer. The pork belly futures contract was born at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange in 1961 as a result of this cycle: Farmers with an excess supply of pork bellies sold them to cold storage warehouses, thus locking in a price long before tomato season hit. Pork belly traders made money speculating on the spread between the price of bellies on those contracts and the price they got when they finally sold the frozen meat to a smokehouse, where it was made into bacon.

Who knew? Other than pork belly traders on the Chicago Merc…

Anyway, things chugged along, bacon-wise, until:

…the 1980s when powerful health and diet trends transformed the American food industry. Based on evidence that saturated fat and cholesterol were at the core of everything from heart health and obesity to cancer rates, eating lean became the collective mantra, and the food world responded by marketing to fat phobia. Diet sodas became the rage, margarine replaced butter everywhere, and the words “Fat Free” could sell a car. Bacon, which is essentially two-thirds fat, was doomed. “First the fat scare began, and then the nitrate scare,” recalls [Joe] Leathers [late of Hormel]. “That was big. That was really the first food scare. I’ll bet you bacon sales fell off 35-40 percent.”

Fear of fatness prompted the pork industry to come up with its “Other White Meat” campaign. Which was such a hit, it turned people further off of bacon. In fact, just as “we” did with cigarettes, pork producers – stuck with all those warehouses full of pork bellies no one wanted – started to export pork bellies. And:

…farmers tried to salvage what they could from leaner loins and chops by breeding thinner, more muscular pigs.

But there’s only so thin and muscular a pig can go, and there’s no doing away with the fact that,one way or another, a pig’s going to have a belly.

So pork farmers started pressing their industry to put less focus on the Other White Meat, and more on bacon.

They [Pork Board marketers] came up with a plan to reposition bacon as a “flavor enhancer” to the restaurant industry, because there was a greater chance of diners accepting bacon when they ate out.

And they also went after fast food, encouraging them to start adding bacon to burgers. This eventually took off thanks to improvements in precooked bacon technology, which yielded bacon that actually tasted like bacon, without the risk and bother of cooking bacon (grease fires, disposal).

One thing led to another, and:

“Around 2000 is when bacon became the third condiment behind salt and pepper.”

I don’t know about that, but all of a sudden pork bellies were bringing home the bacon, and the Pork Board shelved the Other White Meat strategy in favor or “Bacon Makes It Better.”

Which some top chefs decided was true. So they started adding it. (Someone had to be the first person to wrap a scallop in bacon.)

Then social media started spreading the word, and the word was bacon.

By 2008, bacon had completed its journey from an ignored, unwanted meat to a viral meme—the edible equivalent of cat videos. That year, according to the website Babycenter, 11 out of every million babies born in America were named Bacon.

Well, I suspect, or at least hope, that Bacon in these 11 in a million cases is a family name. As in Roger, or Francis, or Kevin.

In any case, we’re apparently on a health-be-damned bacon tear.

And it’s no wonder.

Let’s face it. One thing about bacon, it does make a lot of things better.


*Actually, the answer is, yes, there is an even better bacon-based sandwich, and that’s the Gus.

Invented over 50 years ago by my brother Tom (a.k.a., Gus) and me, the Gus is easy-peasy to make, and may well be the best sandwich ever. A Gus is composed of bacon, lettuce, cheese, and kosher dill pickle, served on pumpernickel slathered with mayo.

Now, the original recipe called for American cheese and white sandwich bread, which were staples Chez Rogers, but, as tastes evolved, so did the Gus. Pumpernickel subs for the white bread of yore, and Cheddar is preferable (and more likely to be on hand) than American. Iceberg lettuce, however, was the original and, when it comes to the Gus, still the greatest.

I don’t indulge in a Gus all that often – far less frequently than I make myself a PBJ. But, when it comes to sandwiches, it’s still the one.

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