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EC: American Meat: Decadence and Divisiveness at Baconfest Chicago
Credit: Photos by Lyndon French

Twenty-nine pounds of compact muscle and enthusiasm in a bejeweled collar, she reminded me of a female gymnast; Mary Lou Retton without the Christian conservatism, a canine Kerri Strug. Throw in a necktie for a tongue, a serious case of separation anxiety, and that classic bully stubbornness and she added up to a whole lot of trouble, so for a couple days that’s what I called her: Trouble. Next I tried NoNo, then Don’t, even Jerk for like an hour or two until my sister came downstairs one fuzzy morning to tell me my breakfast was offending her vegetarian nostrils. I gave her my best dirty look and told her to shut it, then gave her my other best dirty look. “And besides,” I said, “everybody loves bacon.” Of course that’s not exactly true, but it’s true enough that it’s what I ultimately named the dog. And having a dog named Bacon is—far as I can tell—pretty high up on my list of qualifications for covering this year’s Baconfest Chicago, a two-day event benefiting the Greater Chicago Food Depository that took place at the UIC Forum over a rainy weekend in late April.

I was invited to attend the 8th annual by Seth Zurer, one of three co-founders and friends who first conceived of the festival back in March of 2009. “The original idea,” Zurer said, “was as a kind of Gesamtkunstwerk around bacon.” I scratched my sideburn with a fork and asked him what exactly a Gesamtkunstwerk was and how to spell it—which he did, correctly, and on the first try. Then he laughed. “I’m going to come off as the most pretentious asshole in all the culinary world,” he said, “but it’s Wagner’s conception of artwork that encompasses every single art form: the culinary arts, theatrical arts, poetry, music, song, and dance. It was going to be like Burning Man, a place where fulfillment would develop around bacon, but we trimmed some of those early, ambitious ideas down to basically a tasting festival.” And while Baconfest Chicago is not exactly a sexed-up art party on the dusty playa—there were no merry nudists or Slut Olympics, no giant sculptures for Donald Ducking dudes to climb—“basically a tasting festival” doesn’t quite cover it, either.

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I first met Zurer out front of the media check-in table over the bustle and din of 60 to 70 volunteers, chefs, and staffers from 55 of the city’s best restaurants, and representatives from over two dozen sponsors I don’t care to list with the exception of longtime backer Nueske’s, a Wisconsin-based meat purveyor that donated 7,360 pounds of applewood-smoked bacon to this year’s event—the equivalent of approximately 132,480 slices of bacon, if we take Nueske’s given average of 18 slices per pound, or about 335 pigs’ worth. It was plenty impressive just watching all the red shirts hustle around the lobby, which isn’t saying too much as I was also plenty impressed by the coiled audio tube of the two-way radio over Zurer’s right ear. He was saying something to someone about I-couldn’t-hear-what, but it looked very secret service-y, double-fingers-to-earpiece and everything, a bit anomalous considering the bright, friendly eyes under his half-rimmed Costco glasses, his ASICS sneakers and cardinal colored Baconfest vest. My suspicion, from the start, was that Zurer’s such a nice guy he even looks like one.

He walked me past the growing line of eager pork eaters at the entrance to the main hall, a 23,000-square-foot cavernous space of dark carpet and foldable walls, one of those generic, oversized non-places that prides itself on its adaptability. The UIC Forum has been a venue for everyone from Bill Nye to Jeezy to New Life Covenant Church brunches and has all the charm of a warehouse. That said, Baconfest has more than enough personality to make up for the forum’s lack of it. The festival could easily charm up a space three times the size, which I know because it charms up the space three separate times: a Saturday Lunch session, a Saturday Dinner, and a Sunday Brunch.

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“We liked that scale,” Zurer told me. “We fit 90 exhibitors and 1,500 people in the room, and that’s the max we can do at the forum.” Makes sense, but also makes navigating peak crowds while balancing a plate of food and a Piggy Colada on a small clipboard kind of harrowing. I nearly dropped my Kelhog’s Porktart.

Precisely the reason I thought it might be smart to get an early peek before the masses, but mostly what I got was an early peek at chefs and staff in the throes of setting up to showcase their creative takes on America’s favorite cured meat. Some, obviously, go the Moons Over My Hammy route: fun-filled and pun-filled. Off the top of my head and a couple of grease-stained notes, there was Pork and Mindy’s, Porklava, Chicago is Bacon-me Crazy Cupcakes, Oralgasms, Bacaroons—which were macaroons of bacon butter cream made to look like little pigs—and the good folks at GingerSnap & Sweets cooked up a Porktart-accompanying brochure featuring April Ham Lincoln, Amy Swinehouse, and Scarlett Johamsson. Others took a more sophisticated tack—no surprise, as the festival is full of Michelin Stars, Top Chefs, and James Beard-recognized heavy-hitters like Takashi Yagahashi and Paul Virant. The food, across the board, was outstanding.

There was another kind of sophistication at work, too—the media savvy kind. More often than you might think, I found myself speaking to some PR person, event coordinator, or restaurant group GM. On the one hand, I get it. In a world where a Yelp review by any schmuck can hurt your bottom line, you’ve got to be careful. On the other, talking to a “brand evangelist” for 30 seconds was more than enough to make me miss the bad old days of coked-up sous chefs calling me a dumb fuck. That said, my objection to PR may in fact just be my own hypersensitivity to the commodification of a charitable event, no matter how slight.

My options then were either to find an interesting way to regurgitate what the PR pros were pushing or try to glean something “off-message.” I chose neither, and instead got myself a pre-noon vodka and waited to talk to the first guy through the door, a man with a “Man Boobs Are Sexy” shirt. That B-cupped fella happened to be one Aaron Samuels, who, after waiting in line for more than an hour, came in at 11 a.m., arms overhead in triumphant celebration of—well, he was just happy to be there. “I’m just happy to be here,” he said. I complimented the bacon-shaped chip clips in his freestyle beard. “I started wearing them I think year three. Got them from Target.”

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I was in the middle of asking where he got the magnetic pig attached to his glasses when Samuels’ wife Charlotte walked up sporting a “How Bacon Sausage Is Made” T-shirt depicting a hog fucking a unicorn under a rainbow. “For our anniversary every year I get us VIP tickets,” Samuels said. “We love bacon. I mean, I’m Jewish, and this is the eighth day of Passover, but to heck with it. I’m sorry, you got seven out of me and it’s good enough. We’re not skipping Baconfest.”

They were hardly alone. Over the course of the weekend I spoke with plenty of Semitic bacon lovers at the self-described “little c” catholic event. There was Joshua Kulp, owner and chef at Chicago’s Honey Butter Fried Chicken, a two-time winner of the festival’s Golden Rasher Award, this year for their delicious Bacon Chicken and Grits. “My rabbi was very proud,” Kulp joked, then said that he and Zurer both tasted bacon a few months after their Bar Mitzvahs, and it was life changing. In fact, I spoke with bacon lovers of all stripes, as openness and inclusion are central to the philosophy of the festival, made explicit in its doctrine, The Bacon Manifesto:

Their aim is spot-on. I can tell you, firsthand, that Baconfest Chicago is a place where a Catholic chef, Jewish chef, Buddhist chef, atheist chef, vegan chef, a woman wearing a “Bacon Gives Me a Lardon” shirt, a woman wearing a cape, a dude with Kevin Bacon’s head on a stick, a guy with the “one and only” Baconfest Chicago tattoo, and Hannibal Buress himself can stand in front of a seven-foot tall sculpture of the Sears tower constructed entirely out of uncooked bacon strung on a wire frame while watching an opera singer belt out an aria from “The Marriage of Pigaro” near a drunk dude dressed as a construction cone. In its own weird way, it’s kind of the American dream.

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And, as is too often the case in this occasionally wonderful country of ours, one group’s dream is another’s nightmare, one’s pleasure another’s pain. But we are all of us equally endowed with certain inalienable rights, like, for example, the right to peacefully assemble. At least that’s what I hear.

As for what I heard: shouting. About halfway through the first session a singular voice, followed by a few others, broke through the background buzz. I couldn’t make out much but immediately recognized the music of it: a call-and-response familiar to anyone who’s been around a picket line or protest, this shroomy Mardi Gras parade I ended up at one time, or has listened to Jay and Ye’s Watch the Throne. After impolitely excusing myself from a Canadian who thought his country’s bacon was criminally under-represented, I ducked my way through the pack to see a group of about 20 men, women, and children in close rank just outside the entrance, dressed in black and holding signs. Now that I was closer I could hear them just fine.

While most festivalgoers were either out of earshot or too blissed-out or bloated to care, a few dozen gathered around, some shouting back: “Eat Pigs! Eat Pigs! Eat Pigs!” Others snapped thumbs-up selfies with the protestors in the background while a man wearing really clean jeans yelled: “Get out of here you cabbage lovers!” then laughed and high-fived a pal in a “Hama Sutra” shirt.

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At this point security showed up and informed the demonstrators they had to leave or the police would be called, the guard directing them out a set of side doors goading, “Go to McDonald’s!” over and over. I scanned the group to see how they’d react—hardly at all—my eyes settling on the youngest of them, a redheaded kid of about seven wearing a Batman hoodie and holding a laminated photograph of a piglet with the caption I WANT TO LIVE. He kept glancing up, taking his cues from a person I assumed to be his father, who had begun to move toward the exit. As he turned to follow him out, someone started in with the na-na-na-nas, and by the fifth, maybe sixth na I knew for certain I was witnessing one of the most witless parting shots I was ever going to hear, and worse, that it was only halfway through; there were still a few more nas, a hey-hey-hey, and a goodbye to endure. It was awful, and I can’t really explain the strange effect it had on me except to say it was an insult lacking so many things and all at once—humor, originality, generosity, empathy, bravery, intelligence of any kind—that it created a kind of emotional vacuum my attention couldn’t escape, bending time around it, magnifying the already profound stupidity of it all. It’s as if the dumbness had its own gravity. All these weeks later and I still find myself revisiting that moment, the kid looking up at his father, another na, glancing at his older brother, another na, turning to leave, another na. In my memory of it, the insult never reaches its end. I remember only shaking my head, tossing my unfinished drink in the trash, and following the protesters out into the rain.

Outside, on the puddled sidewalk, someone handed me a leaflet and introduced me to John Boland and Eva Hamer, the group’s organizers. “We’re Direct Action Everywhere,” Boland said. Tall, slim, and bespectacled, his light brown hair pulled back into a messy ponytail, he sounded like you might imagine: earnest, committed, righteous. “Thank you for coming,” he said. I thanked them both for showing up and making a case for the ethical treatment of animals.

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Hamer stepped back—5-foot-4, dark hair, black glasses and, all considered, fairly unassuming. Then she spoke. “It’s not just ethical treatment,” she said. “There’s no way to kill someone who doesn’t want to die and have it be ethical. There’s no way to take a life, or to use someone without their consent, and have that be ethical. These are individuals that need to be considered, to be given moral consideration, just like ourselves and our cats and dogs. It’s not about treating them humanely. It’s about liberating them completely.”

I’m sure I blinked at her for a few seconds. Maybe I nodded, said OK or great or some other placeholder. But inside—in my dumb, hopeful, buzzed-up pufferfish of a heart—what I was feeling was more akin to holy fuck yes. Where’s my bandana, give me a brick, and bring on the goddamn revolution because I’m talking free Willy and Shamu; free Koko and Shrek the sheep, Stoffel the honey badger, Punxsutawney Phil, and that tiger that tried to eat Sigfried or Roy; free Flicka and Seabiscuit and Black Beauty; free the Dramatic Chipmunk, Air Bud, and Babe Pig in the City, and while we’re at it all the other pigs, too, and the cows and all of them because Viva la Vida you dipshitted meat-eating a-holes!

Of course—as my father often says—“That’s stupid.” Worse, he’s not wrong, and worse still, it undermines the seriousness of the nonviolent argument Hamer (and Direct Action Everywhere) is making.

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And that’s just the thing: In an argument, the practice of eating animals is, at the very least, an ethically tricky thing to defend. What’s undeniable is that 1) raising animals for food fucks up the planet and 2) causes those animals untold suffering. I talked to over 70 Baconfesters over the weekend and asked a good number of them their thought on the ethics of eating bacon, and meat in general. What I heard was limited to some version of selfish convenience (eating animals is something I like to do and would like to continue doing), T-shirt tropisms (“zero fucks”), or what’s commonly referred to as speciesism—the idea that being human affords us greater moral rights than non-humans, including the right to kill and eat non-humans. Because “it’s natural.”

While it’s fair to say that it’s “biologically natural” to treat one’s own species better than those of other species—and that pretty much all animals do exactly that—it’s also fair to say that nature does not dictate morality. Non-human animals are not moral agents—i.e., because a dog eats shit doesn’t mean we should, too. Humans, though, have agency. So the question each of us must ask ourselves is this: Because we have the smarts and the choice not to kill other animals—animals that we know to experience happiness, sadness, anger, fear, and pain—are we morally obligated not to do so? According to renowned moral philosopher Peter Singer (as paraphrased by renowned moral philosopher Cora Diamond in her essay “Eating Meat and Eating People”)— yeah:

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Well, dammit. If we can't eat animals with a clear conscience, what's left to use? Beans? Won't stand. If only we could find a way to deny animals...animalhood. Turns out we're kind of doing that already, thanks to a slick linguistic trick pondered by David Foster Wallace in his landmark essay "Consider the Lobster":

Possibly. There’s a case to be made that it’s more a matter of etymology. But Wallace is certainly right about one thing: the unease. While I’m confident in my ability to assassinate a fish (my thinking is similar to Patrice O’Neal’s on this), and am fairly certain I could murder a chicken or a turkey if I were hungry enough, I don’t think I could execute a pig, cow, or goat, and I for sure couldn’t do it with any frequency. Eating mammals, for me, relies on someone else’s dirty work behind closed doors. It has to be pre-murdered, butchered, Saran-wrapped, if not outright prepared and presented. In other words, it requires my willful ignorance. I’d rather not think about the troubling realities, because the troubling realities make my bacon less enjoyable.

So, having determined that I’m a selfish prick, I exchanged some contact information with Hamer & Co., shook some hands, and wished them well. “We’re going to Whole Foods next,” Boland said. “We’re going to do a funeral.”

“Yes,” Hamer said. “And you’re welcome to come.”

By the time I warmed myself up with an Old Dickey, talked to a guy with a homemade pork crown about Bacon S’mores, drank a Labatt Blue because, you know, it was there, talked to another guy who explained his Operation BBQ tattoo, took a piss, listened to the dude at the adjacent urinal describe bacon as a “gateway meat,” grabbed my coat, and headed back outside, the protesters were gone. I panicked, pulled out my iPhone with the Rorschach-ed broken screen (it looked like my father’s disappointment, same as every inkblot with the obvious exceptions of the crushed butterflies and conjoined penis ones), googled the closest Whole Foods, and jogged off in the drizzle hoping to catch up with them.

I spotted the group making their way up the sidewalk in funeral-procession formation complete with pallbearers carrying an almost full-sized, somewhat-soggy cardboard coffin. Walking in with them I felt an electric tingle of anticipation, an excitement at the prospect of—I don’t really know what. There was no serious trouble to be gotten into, so it was more a matter of causing some, which I’m a fan of. I wasn’t sure what to expect. All I knew for certain is that when we reached the cantaloupes it was already a good time, so much so that despite the gloom of a funeral-as-performance, I found myself trying and mostly failing to stifle a smile.

By the time the pallbearers put the coffin down in front of the fresh seafood I was borderline giddy. I stood about five feet back as the mourners, some woefully clutching purple roses, lined up behind the casket. I glanced around for security, but saw only a few confused patrons furrowing their eyebrows before continuing on their shop. Then the camera came on, and one-by-one, each activist said a few words for the dearly departed.

That sort of thing.

They had about a sixty-seven-second run of uninterrupted, performative sorrow before the first guard showed up; male, overweight, late 30s to mid 40s. He looked around and asked, “Hey. Who runnin’ this thing right here? Huh?” His eyes zig-zagged the protestors until they landed on me. “This you?” he asked, gesturing. I shrugged and shook my head no while the activists kept right on rolling with the I’m sorrys and dearly departeds, and a few mournful words later a second guard showed up, this time a younger female. “Excuse me, ladies and gents,” she said, which, also, unsurprisingly, was ignored.

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“If y’all not gonna break it up,” the man said, now trying to obstruct the camera with his hand, “I gotta call the cops.” In response, the activists got louder.

With the last in line having said their piece, the male guard turned to the camera and asked, “That shit good?” If he was actually looking for an answer, Hamer gave it to him by starting up with the call and response again.

By now, Boland was somewhat awkwardly fumbling around the coffin before two others picked it up and the group marched further into the store—comically in the exact opposite direction an employee was pointing—call-and-responding their way out of fresh and into frozen seafood, through beef and poultry, past the orange juices, before they hung a left at farm fresh dairy. In the video posted on YouTube, this is where the camera cuts off.

What you don’t see is the showdown in wine and cheese. Somewhere around the Goudas security blocked the path to the front door, at least for the three or four activists nearest the coffin. The rest of the group, unaware of what was happening behind them, continued on their way.

“Out the door, guys!” The guard pointed to an unseen exit at the back of the store. “You have to leave the store! Everyone has to leave the store! You will be arrested!” One activist held his sign in the security guard’s face before it was slapped to the ground. The activist looked at the sign at his feet, stooped to pick it up, picked it up, stepped around the guard, and continued on his way out the front door.

The pallbearers, though, were not as fortunate, and the guards succeeded in forcing them out the back. I can’t describe it as harrowing so much as irksome, as the pallbearers simply exited, walked around the building, and joined us on the sidewalk out front.

“Nobody ever gets arrested,” Hamer said. “The police show up sometimes, usually when we’re already outside. Then they tell us, ‘You’ve got to stay on the sidewalk.’ And we say OK, we’ll stay on the sidewalk.”

Anticlimactic as it seemed, I found myself a bit keyed-up by the odd interaction, if not a little inspired by this small group of people putting their time and energy toward something outside themselves, something they individually and collectively care deeply about. After a hearty congratulations on a funeral well done, I said my goodbyes and jogged off in the drizzle, dodging traffic and puddles on my way back to the forum.

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I arrived wet-socked and anxious as I re-clipped my media badge on my coat and headed inside, just as things were coming to a close. A few short minutes later, Seth and his two co-creators took the stage, as there was still some Gesamtkunstwerk-ing to be done: prizes to be awarded, costumes cheered, poetry recited, and songs sung. It was all silly by design, lighthearted and jovial, and I couldn’t help but think it wasn’t exactly appropriate, all that celebrating and meanwhile it’s a fucking slaughterhouse out there. Easy enough to ignore, I suppose, if it weren’t for the vendor with two decapitated pig heads on his table.

As I watched the fun unfolding on stage I fell into that awful habit of mine, that mental time-travel thing where I worry the job ahead of me. I still had to write the thing, it had to be interesting, it had to be true, and it had to have my name on it. After all, this isn’t Yelp or Amazon or an anonymous Kirkus review—the usual drive-by shootings. Smart or not, these are my opinions. Ones I wish I didn’t have.

Especially because, standing there, belly full and free drink in hand, surrounded by a thousand-and-some bacon fanatics, I realized my opinions aren’t the popularly held ones, and they’re ones that may not seem the most generous to my generous hosts. But there they are just the same: I like those activists. They’re sweethearted in a world where it isn’t easy to be. They’re also stubborn, disruptive, and challenging a system that has normalized the mistreatment of animals. So as much as I wish it weren’t the case—because I really, really enjoy thin-cut, extra crispy, full-salt bacon—I also think they’re right.

Just as I convinced myself that’s how I’d end this piece, out came the oversized ceremonial check. The amount of this year’s donation to the Greater Chicago Food Depository was $50,000. To date, Baconfest’s contributions total more than $330,000, with an additional $30,000 raised through raffle ticket sales. All in all, it’s the equivalent of 1,102,111 meals made available to hungry people in need.

From my spot at the table, that seems pretty right, too.

Matt Sumell is the author of Making Nice.