Citizen Wausau

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In the beginning was bacon… and it was good

by on October 10th, 2011

You’ve been waiting patiently for this foodie’s take on bacon.  Here it is.

I must first warn you that I am very passionate about bacon.  You will discover this immediately here and in future posts about bacon.  And there will be future posts.  Bacon will become a recurring theme in these food blogs.

Bacon, like a good wine, is something that you must get to know.  You cannot just dive right into it.  You must understand the flavor, the process of making it, the nuances and varieties between different types.  In other words, you must develop a true appreciation for bacon.

To most people, this will come across as very snobbish.  But I am sure you can relate.  Think of the best hamburger or ice cream cone or slice of pie you’ve ever had.  There’s just something about it – an indescribable quality – that separates it from the rest.  And once you’ve had it, it’s hard to go back to the run of the mill kind that you can get just about everywhere.

If the point isn’t clear enough, let me offer a flying analogy.  Once you get pampered sitting in a big comfy seat in first class with lots of room, it’s hard to go back to the cramped style in coach with some stranger who may fall asleep on your shoulder or want to talk your ear off or get up to the go to the bathroom every hour.

Bacon, as I have discovered, has been a part of humanity for as long as we’ve been around.  Or as long as pigs have been domesticated.

For starters, bacon comes from a pig.  But it comes from different parts of the pig depending on what part of the world you live in.  The bacon we eat in the United States comes from the belly of the pig.  It is sometimes called streaky bacon because of the streaks of fat, and in other parts of the world there seems to be an aversion against this kind of bacon for that very reason.  Growing up, this is the only kind of bacon I’ve ever known.

People outside of the U.S. get their bacon from the side of the pig or its back.  The side cuts are reportedly more meaty and less fatty.  Back bacon, which is known as Canadian bacon in the U.S., comes from the loin in the middle of the pig’s back.  It is also lean, meaty and has a more ham-like quality.

I experienced a lot of “Wow! I didn’t know that!” moments as I researched bacon.  Seriously…went to the library and asked the reference librarian for books about bacon.  She pointed me to two cookbooks on meat – which both included ample information about the history of pork.  (You can find links to the books through the Marathon County public library here and here.  Using a book’s ISBN will help you find it in other library systems)

Like, did you know that pigs played a role in the development of Wall Street?  Pigs were among the first commodities traded in the colonies and early days of our country.  Settlers in New Amsterdam (what is now New York) built a wall to keep pigs separated from the rest of the trading post.  The road that developed along that route?  You guessed it…Wall Street.  (Many of the nation’s railroads, by the way, also developed along the same trading routes where pigs were carried to market).

And while those of us in Wisconsin may think of the Green Bay Packers as the most famous offshoot of a meat packing company, perhaps the most famous butcher and meatpacker of them all is the iconic top-hat wearing, bearded figure known as Uncle Sam.

Samuel Wilson was a meatpacker from Troy, New York.  He shipped meat to soldiers in a nearby training camp during the War of 1812, stamping each barrel of pork with the initials “U.S.”  Eventually it stuck – people came to associate any property stamped with U.S. as government property.  Over time (and with the help of the cartoonist Thomas Nast) Uncle Sam became the personification of the government.

Pork products, including bacon, have been traced all the way back to Greek and Roman times, where pork was served during major feasts and banquets and was prized for its nutrition and versatility.

“Romans of all classes were fond of pork, especially ham and bacon,” Bruce Aidells and Denis Kelly write in “The Complete Meat Cookbook.”

Pork IS a versatile meat.  Its ability to be cured gave settlers the sustenance they needed as they blazed new territory in the U.S.  It made Cincinnati a “Porkopolis” before Chicago took over as the nation’s pork trading ground zero during the Civil War (meatpackers were no longer able to safely ship their supply along the Ohio River because of the river’s strategic geographical location during the war).

Pork, and more importantly bacon, is as American as apple pie.

I have some ideas about where I could go with my next blog about bacon.  I want to tell you what got me hooked on bacon.  I could tell you how the curing process affects the flavor.  I want to introduce you to a local company whose bacon is critically acclaimed.  At some point, I want to discuss how bacon is ubiquitous.  Maybe there’s something about bacon I’m missing entirely.  Help  me out by joining the conversation below and sharing your thoughts.  Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go fry up some bacon – partly because I’m starving, but also because it is good inspiration for the next post.

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