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“Bacon cereal.” “Bacon lollipop.” “Bacon spaghetti.” “Bacon bread.” “Bacon coffee.” “Bacon beer.”
In a sane world, none of these exact phrases would return any hits when plugged into Google. This is not a sane world.
A chocolate bar studded with bits of bacon sells better than any of the wines at Arlington’s Curious Grape. BLT Steak, just behind the White House, serves grilled double-cut bacon as an appetizer. For $9. There’s bacon-infused vodka.Bacon-flavored mints. Baconnaise, bacon salt, a bacon-print wallet, bacon Band-Aids.
“I was a vegetarian for a year,” says Michelle Harriott, 26, of Rosslyn, “and I had bacon dreams.”
This past March, she and 14 others gathered at Lia’s in Chevy Chase, Md., to watch executive sous chef Peter DiGeorge spend about three hours demonstrating the magical properties of bacon at a class called “I Love Bacon,” which taught participants to make four courses of bacon-infused cuisine. “This is bacon,” DiGeorge explains while hefting an entire pork belly—about 15 pounds—for effect. (Earlier, he’d told me that he smokes whole slabs of bacon at cookouts. “Bacon on its own is delicious.”) Though everyone here’s a fan of pig, Laura Haynes of Derwood, 39, appears to be the most vocal bacon lover of all. When DiGeorge asks if anyone has questions, she says, “I’d like a piece of bacon.”
She’ll get it, and more. DiGeorge demonstrates a bacon-laced potato-leek soup. A steak is encrusted with peppercorns and bacon pieces. And then there’s DiGeorge’s take on the Bacon Explosion.
Perhaps you’ve heard the story of this…thing. Two Kansas-based bloggers, Jason Day and Aaron Chronister, were looking for a way to drive traffic to their barbecue blog. They found it in the form of a pound of sliced bacon woven mat-style and wrapped around a filling of sausage and more bacon. The Explosion rocketed through the blogosphere like pains in the left arm of a heart-attack victim. Day and Chronister found themselves on the front page of the New York Times’ food section. Then they got a book deal.
As prep for his class, DiGeorge cooked up his version of the Explosion and, just for the hell of it, he wrapped the whole thing in dough. A tiny slice of this monster—warm, salty, smoky, and savory—is enough to send me to bacon heaven. Ten minutes later, when I’m still trying to get the taste of grease out of my mouth, I’m less enamored. Then, as I recall the study a few months back linking red and/or processed meat to deaths from cancer and heart disease, I feel like I’m gonna barf and like I’m gonna die.
“Personally, I don’t think there’s ever too much bacon,” says Cathal Armstrong, owner and chef at Restaurant Eve. Armstrong remembers grabbing rasher sandwiches on his way out the door for school when he was a boy in Ireland: just bread, bacon, and “as much butter as you can get on it without spilling it all over yourself.”
When Nathan Anda was chef at Tallula and EatBar, he pioneered the “Bacon of the Week” concept. Since applewood-smoked was getting boring, “I was just thinking, why don’t we try to incorporate flavors into bacon?” he says. “Plan the dish around bacon as opposed to bacon being an ingredient in the dish?” He came up with cinnamon, cumin-coriander, ginger, coffee, Old Bay. Last year, he left both positions to concentrate on making charcuterie full-time; now he supplies Tallula’s sister restaurants with meat both fresh and cured.
Still, everyone thinks of him as the bacon guy.
“A couple years back…I had helped a friend out moving and he got me the Bacon of the Month Club,” Anda says. “I don’t really have the time to cook at my house, so to get 12 pounds of bacon, that’s pretty excessive.” Worse: “I’ve gotten like six bacon wallets over the last couple of years.”
The reason for the Explosion and the explosion? Bacon makes other things taste good, which makes it a popular recession item. The technical term is “barding,” which means “laying strips of bacon over a roast,” usually a cheap, tough piece of meat that can benefit from the extra grease. The term used often erroneously is “larding,” which specifically refers to inserting pieces of fat inside a tough cut of meat with a special needle.
The trouble is, we’re larding our whole lives. We can’t afford nice things anymore, so we try to plump up our crap to look more appealing. I’m working two jobs just to make my rent payment, but I have bacon-flavored jam.
Economics aside, “it just tastes good” is the response from chefs and home cooks. “I don’t think that modern gastronomes are ever going to give up pork. It’s just too useful,” says Armstrong.
Bonnie Coberly is a local holistic health counselor (what we unwashed used to call “nutritionists”) who makes a living telling her clients that bacon is a sometimes food, but says “bacon is the one reason I could never become a vegetarian.”
From a health standpoint, she says, “if you’re having like two, three slices of bacon for breakfast you’re pretty much done for the day” in terms of saturated fat. This statement is enough to get her hogtied by an angry mob of bacon addicts, if they could run fast enough to catch her. The bacon-loving nutritionist eats it once a month, at most.
Midway through his class, DiGeorge’s salad course hits a snag: He’s demonstrated a vinaigrette where the oil comes from bacon grease. But the lettuce came from the fridge—a miscommunication between DiGeorge and his sous chef. The vinaigrette’s supposed to be served warm. Result: All 15 salads arrive with lumps of congealed bacon fat.
DiGeorge apologizes, but everybody gamely crunches through the romaine and solidified lard anyway. Some, Haynes included, ask for more bacon to crumble on top.
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