A chef, some writers, and a finance guy try to get to the bottom of the mystery meat
Justin Trudeau, Ryan Gosling, and maple syrup aren’t the only Canadian transplants oozing their charm all over the United States. Consider the ultimate interloper from the north, one that appears on every nearly breakfast menu across the entire United States: Canadian bacon. Often sandwiched between your toasted English muffin and your poached eggs and hollandaise, Canadian bacon looks nothing like the American version of bacon. It’s not long, thin, and sizzling; it’s round, squat, and looks vaguely like ham. But if it’s ham, why isn’t it called Canadian ham? Is it even bacon? What makes it Canadian? Is it even Canadian? What is this meat?
Extra Crispy doesn’t have a private food investigator but we do have notable Canadians to consult. As a US citizen-turned-Canadian resident, for Canada Day, I’ve sought out some of my new fellow countrymen and countrywomen to see if they can help me solve this mystery. If anyone can explain Canadian bacon, it would be Canadians, right?
Hugh Acheson, chef, restaurateur, and Top Chef judge
Canadian bacon always sounds so exciting. But then it arrives and it is a dry, lean, flavorless piece of loin with some strangling remnants of powdery cornmeal on the exterior. Well that's what it is most of the time, but when you have really well done Canadian bacon you are having truly well-crafted peameal bacon, and that’s a wonderful thing.
Basically it is a center cut of pork loin, from a happy pig, brined with simple spices, some sugar, usually maple syrup, and a touch of pink salt. It brines for a week and then gets pulled out and dabbed dry and rolled in peameal. I like using ground Sea Island red peas, but you can use whatever. Then it sits to dry out a bit in the fridge. When you want to cook it, slice some thin rounds and crisp them up in a touch of bacon fat.
This is one of those pre-refrigeration-era recipes. The idea is that the brine cures the meat and adds shelf life, and the peameal keeps your cured pork on the dry side, to avoid things going rancid. But that peameal also adds some texture and flavor to the finished crisped round, and the long brine results in a very, very tender and moist yet lean result.
Kate Beaton, creator of Hark! A Vagrant
I only knew Canadian Bacon was a thing because of the John Candy movie, and even then, I thought it was just the name of the John Candy movie. Canadian bacon is just... ham? Ham circles? You shouldn't get Canadians to explain it, you should get Americans to explain it to us.
Tracy Dawson, dual citizen, writer, and actress
Well, the first thing I want to say is, Canadian bacon is not a thing. OK, that's not exactly true. Um. Let's see. I've lived in The US for ten years now but I do remember that Canadian bacon is not a food item that is found on many—or any—menus back in Canada. I think maybe it might be a thing found on menus elsewhere. So asking a Canadian to explain Canadian bacon is a funny thing because for many of us, it's not a thing. To be honest I've always thought it was peameal bacon—which is definitely found on menus back home—but then upon moving south I thought, oh, maybe ‘Canadian bacon’ is ‘back bacon.’ Are those the same thing but one is crusted with cornmeal? I'm doing a great job explaining this, aren't I? Feeling very lacking at the moment. Why did I agree to do this?
Brett Connor, Director of Finance at Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa
Canadian bacon is like your typical Canadian: well rounded, will bend but not break, full of only the good stuff, and smells great in the morning!
Kathryn Borel, writer for TV’s American Dad and author of Corked: A Memoir
When I heard this question, I immediately asked my chef friend Dave, "Is it correct to state that Canadian bacon exists in the uncanny valley between loin and ham?" He said, "It’s just a cured and smoked loin, so your assessment would be spot-on."
There, I thought, my job is done. Then I made the mistake of texting my designer friend Sam. Like an asshole, he answered my question with another question, which was this: "Why is it called Canadian bacon and not Canadian ham?" Why indeed, Sam? Canadian bacon has no discernible bacon-like qualities except for a shared extreme saltiness. It is chewy and never crispy, it is pink and never red or brown. Canadian bacon is always round, you’ll never find it in rasher form. And most mysteriously, it’s rolled in corn dust so after it is sliced and packaged, the effect on the supermarket shelf is that of a little rosy sun with a disgusting soggy halo of bright yellow meal.
I thought about Sam’s question for a second and responded, "It’s probably a branding thing."
Bacon is hungover morning food for hedonists. Making bacon is a colloquialism for sex. Even the word bacon has a raunchy mouthfeel—a good hard B and C, a nice liquid A, an O that can be moaned, and a refractory N to resolve the stimulus. Ham is just a big blob of cartoonish whatever. It is a holiday gift you get from your boss who is nuts. So whoever decided to slap on the “bacon” moniker to our country’s legacy pork product likely just wanted to take advantage of the meat’s tabula rasa quality.
Like Canadians themselves, especially Canadians living in America, Canadian bacon knows itself to be what it is not, rather than what it is. It exists in the negative space, as a reaction to something concrete, misidentifying itself due to a lack of actualized identity. It still wants to be part of the gang, and is declaring itself to be, but in its heart knows it’s a faker—a sort of well-meaning, healthy, unassuming entity that everyone likes just fine until someone gets drunk enough to be like, "You’re not one of us, you can’t even vote, how are you more qualified to do this job than me?" And yet Canadian bacon will stand there dumbly blinking into its beer, not wanting to rock the boat, refusing to justify why it is Canadian nor admit that it is not bacon. As a result, Canadian bacon might actually be the most platonically ideal example of Canadian identity. To taste this meat is to touch the soul of a nation. If it identifies as bacon, who are we to question that?