Monday, September 23, 2013

Bacon comes of age in America

We’ve been here before. A food that was quiet, served on the side, didn’t make much of a fuss turns into a superstar. Suddenly it’s everywhere: in magazines, books, blogs, radio, TV. Celebrities cozy up to it. Wannabees cling to it. Everyone rides its coattails up and a lot of money and fame are had. Along the way comes the backlash. The haters talk about how it’s over the top, how it’s jumped the shark, how they knew about it when—and, now that it’s famous, it’s not nearly as good.

Bacon is this decade's food star and its story hews to the storyline. Well, sort of. In truth, I haven’t seen many foods experience quite as meteoric a rise as bacon. At least not foods I’m used to selling (I'm looking at you, coconut water). There are parallels, though. Take olive oil.

Two decades ago good extra virgin olive oil was a mainstay of few shops in America, let alone households.  You could find glittering five liter tins of it at “ethnic” markets—that is, Italian shops in Italian neighborhoods—and that was about it. Twenty years later you’d be hard pressed not to find a pretty decent bottle of olive oil in most food retailers and homes. Even the supermarket stuff can be pretty good. It’s part of many people’s everyday cooking. The health aspects certainly didn’t hurt its rise to ubiquity, but I think most of its growth can be attributed to a simpler storyline: it’s a traditional food that tastes great.

Bacon shares the same trait. It tastes great thanks to its DNA flavor strands of salty, smoky, fatty and sweet. It’s as traditional as you can get in our young country, having been a part of American cooking since colonial times. Where it breaks with olive oil's narrative is in its naughty streak. Bacon likes to be bad. Or at least everyone likes to think it does.

I’m as guilty as the next guy in marketing it that way and I don’t quite know why. I’m not alone. There’s something about it that makes people go a little crazy. It’s like that friend who always gets you drunker than you want to be. Bacon makes people act dirty. They sigh when they eat it. It’s the gateway meat that breaks the will of vegetarians. And of course, no religion (at least none I know of) outlaws olive oil but two of the planet's major faiths forbid bacon. (Speaking of which, you should read some of the gleefully guilt-ridden gift messages practicing Jews to write each other when they send our bacon.)

Bacon is here to stay. In ten years we might not have any more bacon festivals or, God help us, bacon flavored lip balm. But I’m convinced we’ll have better tasting bacon in more homes than ever. 


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