Vegetarians, avert your eyes... Bacon has been jumping the shark since the early 18th century, when Ebenezer Cook complained about the New World's "homely fair." Even then, it would seem, Americans had a predilection for "Fat, from Bacon fry'd, Or with Molossus dulcify'd."
Yes, pundits keep declaring bacon is boring, and therefore, dead. Over. Done, already. But bacon’s greasy grip on the American consciousness lives on.
"Bacon has not merely jumped the shark. Bacon has taken all the sharks, stuffed them with cupcakes, ice cream, sausage, lipstick, alarm clocks and mayonnaise, wrapped them in bacon, deep-fried them, then jumped that. Using a ramp made of bacon."
In a time when people are cultivating their own yoghurt and milling their own flour, it’s a wonder everybody isn’t making their own bacon, the way Pati Palmer does in Cupertino.
It all started a couple of years ago. Driving her two teenagers around one morning, Palmer heard a KQED Forum segment on Do-It-Yourself projects, and the guest Sean Timberlake from Punk Domestics piqued her curiosity. Not long after, she was poking around on the group’s web site. “And I just decided ‘I gotta do bacon.’”
Off she went to Dittmer's Gourmet Meats & Wurst-Haus in Los Altos for five pounds of pork belly. The family ate what they could, and froze the rest. Although, really, that shouldn’t have been necessary. Palmer guffaws. “A 14 year-old son? Come on! Bacon doesn’t last.”
Tasty as it is, Palmer’s not looking to start a new career in bacon. In case you’re thinking about it, bacon is not one of the approved foods under the new California Homemade Food Act. But...we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
First, you should try making bacon, and that involves buying pork belly. Bi-Rite butcher Zane Clark says some people do pause looking at a full pork belly. Especially if they don’t have ravenous teenagers living at home. Zane suggests sharing the love -- and the saturated fat -- with others. “You could have a bacon party with it,” he suggests.
Or...if you want to get all competitive about it, you could invite your DIY-inclined friends over for a piggy throw-down. “A bacon swap,” Clark says, “Which would be kind of cool.”
Clark says he’s seen no perceptible bump in pork belly sales specifically for bacon-making. Other Bay Area butchers report bacon stampedes, typically set off by a compelling food blog post, or TV show, or dare I suggest it, public radio segment. Once you’ve got the belly in your hot little hands, the next question is dry rub or brine.
Ian Marks of The Beast and the Hare in San Francisco brines. Downstairs in the restaurant’s basement, buckets of pork belly sit in brining solution for a week before he pulls them out, commenting:
“It’s basically a pickled piece of meat.”
Marks is coy about the actual recipe. Still, it's fair to say his recipe works. He moves four slabs of bacon a week. The rest he sells to Drewes Brothers and Guerra's Deli & Meats. In truth, much depends on your personal palate. The ingredients are about as basic as can be: “White sugar, brown sugar, molasses, honey, salt, and a little saltpeter.” That said, he must be doing something right to stand out in a crowded marketplace. San Francisco magazine last year declared his bacon the best in the Bay Area.
From there, it’s on to the smoker, strewn liberally with apple wood chips. To meet the exigencies of the weekend brunch rush, he typically finishes cooking the bacon in the oven. After that, there’s yet another aesthetic decision to make - thin slices? Or thick? Marks slices super thick -- just eight to ten slices a pound. "Otherwise, the molasses will start burning."
Some folks are finicky about choosing locally-raised pork, but some of the best heritage breeds come from parts elsewhere. Marks gets his pork from Coleman Farms in Colorado: raised on pasture; no hormones or antibiotics.
“I definitely prefer a red pig, a Duroc pig, over a Berkshire pig,” Marks says. Why? He likes the nuttiness of the Duroc, and the sweetness of the meat. He makes his own charcuterie, too, and that’s also Duroc. That said, there’s something else. “I find Berkshire to be a little more barnyard-y smelling -- and because I’ve noticed it, now I notice it every time.” There are a variety of heritage breeds to choose from, and heritage crossbreeds, too. Ask your favorite butcher where she's sourcing her meat, but it's worth noting she'll also special order if you simply must try, for example, a Tamworth pig, instead of what she has in the case.
Where were we? Right, the stove. After Marks fries up a couple slices, we retire to one of the restaurant tables. Journalistic duty requires a taste test, you understand. Sure enough, as Marks promised, the bacon is salty, sweet and nutty. Some say brining makes the bacon taste more hammy, but there’s nothing hammy about this bacon. “Phenomenal,” I exclaim, and he grins with satisfaction.
Want to listen to the radio feature on bacon that aired on KQED? Here you go!