Soon after proposing this article — fully aware of the slings and arrows that will volley toward my inbox from the feral PETA crowd — I felt as if I’d plunged down the rabbit hole (or the piglet hole, as it were). Everywhere I turned: more bacon. More rumination, deliberation, and obsession about those humble sticks of crispy meat. Dozens of blogs (Bacontarian, Going Whole Hog, Six Degrees of Bacon). Innumerable chintzy gag gifts. Breathless paeans to the deceptively simple sizzle of America’s most sinful breakfast food.
And next month, right in our own backyard, dozens will gather at Atwood’s Tavern in Cambridge to cram their maws with the stuff at the bar’s second annual Bacon Eating Contest. What gives? Is this baconian bacchanal a hell-bent rejoinder to the creeping culture of self-righteous health-fascism? Or is it merely the affirmation of the obvious, inherent deliciousness of salt-cured pork? Alder smoked. Applewood smoked. Cob smoked. Hickory smoked. Skillet-fried or George Foreman–ed, microwaved or baked. Bacon is omnipresent. Its fans are legion. Resistance is futile.
Meat the greatest
If the canine is man’s best friend, creatures of the porcine persuasion have long been his favorite meal. Archeologists have surmised that the pig was the first animal domesticated for food, a millennium before sheep and goats — and even long before crops. (Man, apparently, has never liked to eat his vegetables.)
According to James Villas’s The Bacon Cookbook: More than 150 Recipes from Around the World for Everyone's Favorite Food — “the greatest and most beloved food on earth,” he calls it — bacon is one of the oldest meats; the Chinese were aging and salting pork as early as 1500 BC. Well into the 16th century, we learn from cookbook author and about.com columnist Peggy Trowbridge Filippone, the Middle English term bacoun referred to pork in general. The term “derives from the French bako, common Germanic bakkon and Old Teutonic backe, all of which refer to the back.” (Ironically, what Americans call bacon today comes from pork bellies.) She also notes that “there are breeds of pigs particularly grown for bacon, notably the Yorkshire and Tamworth,” and that “70 percent of the bacon in America is consumed at the breakfast table.”
But bacon is not just for breakfast anymore, says Jamie Bissonette, chef de cuisine at KO Prime steakhouse on Tremont Street. Bissonette — whose favorite Christmas gift this year was a wallet made of faux bacon — is a master of the fine art of charcuterie, and makes his own.
Starting with a “super fresh, great quality piece of pork belly,” is key, of course. Next step is to cure it with a mixture of salt, sugar, and spices. “We salt it for a certain amount of days per pound, and that pulls out a lot of the juice and all the blood,” says Bissonette. “When it gets to that point, we let it sit out for three days, at room temperature, unrolled and covered, and then we season it with black pepper, roll it up, tie it tight with twine, wrap it in cheese cloth, and then hang it in the curing room we have for our hams and salamis for about three months.”