We've reached the bacon breaking point
Early on a Friday evening in March, the bar in Hell’s Kitchen was packed. It was an after-work spot, a place to catch the NCAA tournament on a few big screens and drink a decent craft beer before heading home, or going out for a bigger night. Somewhere under the din of chatter, just barely perceptible, Drake and Rihanna were singing. And beneath that, if I listened hard and used my imagination, was the never-ending sizzle of frying bacon.
This was BarBacon, whose name is as unsubtle as its theme ingredient. Virtually everything you can eat here has bacon in it, from the sliders to the lobster mac and cheese to the key lime pie, topped with crumbled bacon and bacon whipped cream. There’s a bacon tasting menu—two strips each of black pepper, pecan, jalapeño, and sugar-glazed—and bacon cocktails, with bacon-infused bourbon, rum, or vodka. The bacon comes from all over America, from New England to the South to California, and the clientele was nearly as multiculturally varied (though predictably light on observant Jews, Muslims, and vegetarians), and also, as my dining companion warned me by text, “super fratty.”
“You can’t go wrong with bacon,” observed a young guy wearing a San Antonio Spurs cap, who’d walked in spontaneously with his date. “It’s like the color black.”
None of this should surprise you. Yes, bacon is the color black. It’s the iPhone. It’s a $100 bill. It’s a roll of quarters. It’s quality television. (It’s also crummy television that you watch anyway.) It’s the goddamn weather, so ubiquitous that it’s both beneath notice and yet impossible not to mention, to include, to comment on, to salivate over whether you want to or not. It’s a dad joke. It’s a blow job.
And it’s been this way for so long that it’s hard to remember an era when bacon was simply one of a few default breakfast meats, first among equals with sausage and ham (and a significant step above scrapple). I certainly don’t recall that era. By the time I learned to cook bacon as a teenager—fry a few strips at a time in a cast-iron skillet, drain on paper towels, eat before my brother caught sight—bacon grease was already clogging the arteries of Hollywood. Homer Simpson was stocking up on Farmer Billy’s bacon-fed bacon at the Kwik-E-Mart, and Pulp Fiction’s Vincent Vega was coolly cooing, “Bacon tastes gooood; pork tastes gooood.” Bacon was a punchline that needed no setup, a catchy, instant signifier of reptile-brain indulgence.
At the same time, according to this fabulously well-researched article by David Sax in Bloomberg Businessweek, the National Pork Board was doing everything it could to get bacon onto the menus of fast-food chains (and thereby prop up cratering pork-belly prices). Thanks to what Sax called “great advancements in precooked bacon technology,” not to mention canny lobbying, the Pork Board succeeded beyond its wildest dreams, which perhaps explains why I ate so many Wendy’s Junior Bacon Cheeseburgers in high school.
Then, in the early 2000s, the Atkins Diet arrived. Its premise was that if you just stopped eating carbohydrates, your body would go into a fat-burning process called ketosis, and you’d lose weight and stay thin. And what should you consume instead of carbs? Why, meat and cheese! With that, whatever health-consciousness America had developed following warnings, in the 1980s and 1990s, of the dangers of cholesterol, saturated fat, nitrates, and salt—bacon’s raisons d’être—vanished in a flash. The nation, and notably its cultural elite, went apeshit over bacon’s power-chord thrum, and few rocked as hard to that hickory-smoked tune as Josh Ozersky, whose influential writing appeared in Grub Street, Time, and Esquire, and who summed up his gastronomic philosophy as “the fat is the meat, and the meat is the vegetable.”
For Ozersky (who died in 2015), the bacon boom was unparalleled, glorious. “This is the Periclean age of bacon,” he told Nightline.
But by 2007, even Ozersky was declaring in Grub Street that “Bacon Has Jumped the Shark.” America just did not need silly products like bacon salt, he wrote, because “all we want from bacon is more of it. We can live without the accessories entirely.”
He was, as we all now know, entirely wrong. America cannot live without the accessories. In the past nine years, bacon mania has only accelerated, to the point where BarBacon’s menu feels fairly staid. Today you can buy chocolate-covered bacon roses; bacon-flavored hot sauces that contain no bacon; bacon jam and bacon chutney; maple-bacon coffee beans; bacon toothpaste and bacon dental floss; bacon-flavored condoms (that I truly hope contain no actual bacon); bacon perfumes, bacon body wash, and bacon shaving cream. You can attend bacon festivals in Brooklyn, Denver, Seattle, Portland, San Diego, Cary, North Carolina (“This event is not designed for children”), Atlanta, Delray Beach, Des Moines, Omaha, San Jose, Sacramento, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. There are bacon avocados that don’t taste like bacon, and there’s a seaweed, dulse, that does taste like bacon. There is the United Church of Bacon, whose 13,000 members are atheists and skeptics and whose headquarters are in Las Vegas, at the former home of magician Penn Jillette.
“Unlike God, who is invisible, at least we can see Bacon,” declares the church’s website. “Bacon is demonstrably real.”
America doesn’t just love bacon—America is bacon, the cured-and-smoked belly of the world, as dangerously unhealthy as it is deliciously addictive. In fact, this YouTube video of a woman cooking a strip of bacon on the barrel of an AR-15 assault rifle may be the most American thing since the Bill of Rights:
For a lot of us, though, the frenzied American attitude toward bacon makes us as uncomfortable as, well, the frenzied American attitude toward assault rifles. “Bacon makes everything better” is a T-shirt-ready catchphrase as annoying (and worrying) as an unironic “America, fuck yeah!” Now, maybe we’re simply elitist, looking WASPily down, through our Warby Parker monocles, on unchecked enthusiasm about anything. “Those yokels and their bacon!” you can imagine us sneering. “Please pass the beluga.”
But we love bacon, too! The very name of this website you’re reading is, you may have noticed, Extra Crispy. And bacon is all over elite-food-media publications like Bon Appétit (where, full disclosure, I used to work). This year alone, Bon Appétit’s recipes have included stir-fried asparagus with bacon and crispy shallots, cheesy grits with poached eggs, greens, and bacon, and kimchi-braised chicken with bacon. There’s even a recipe for refried beans that includes not only slab bacon but schmaltz—that’s rendered chicken fat, bacon grease’s Jewish cousin thrice removed. By contrast, pancetta and guanciale—fancy-pants (and awesome) Italian approaches to bacon—have not appeared once in 2016.
Bacon is, as well, all over my own cooking life. I’ll chop deeply smoky bacon (and salt pork) into the base of my corn chowder, I have no compunction about frying a few strips for a weekday breakfast, I dream of midsummer BLTs, and when I’ve got the munchies at midnight, I’ll whip up a wok of painfully satisfying bacon kimchi fried rice. For a friend’s bachelor-party weekend at an Airbnb in the Berkshires, I made sure we bought two big packs of bacon (one pork, one lamb), not because we were getting all chest-beatingly manly but because, like, we gotta eat something for breakfast, and this stuff is, as Vincent Vega declared, gooood.
My most cherished bacon ritual, however, is maybe what differentiates me (and my ilk). Whenever I buy a new pack of bacon, cured or uncured, single-smoked or double-smoked, I take it home, open it up, and very carefully place two strips at a time into Ziploc snack bags, and then put them in the freezer. That’s it. There is always bacon in my freezer, but it’s there as an ingredient—a precision umami bomb that spreads its inimitable flavor through whatever else I’m cooking but never dominates. (Of course, my wife always says I use too much.) And I never put my bacon where it doesn’t belong.
And so witnessing bacon mania run rampant across American food culture drives me nuts. My dinner at BarBacon, for example, was anything but gooood. (It might not have helped that I had an enormous barbecue lunch: lamb belly, brisket, sausage, smoked turkey, and ethereal grilled pastrami bacon.) The bacon tasting menu was disappointing, the key lime pie a pity, the avocado-and-fried-egg BLT a disgrace. Only the bacon grilled cheese perked me up; it was made with raisin bread, giving little bright sweet spots to what could otherwise have been a crushing wave of starch and fat. Regardless, when I left I felt like death.
BarBacon, I’m sorry to say, should not exist.
Nor should the TV series United States of Bacon, or the flavored-bacon brand B-Class Strippers, or bacon milkshakes, or bacon tattoos. (I do, however, approve of Fatburger’s Hypocrite Burger—a veggie patty topped with bacon. That makes sense to me.) But exist they do. And more bacon-derived idiocies will surely follow.
No matter how fervently I wish we would reach Peak Bacon, that day will never arrive. Yes, there was a ripple early last year, when pork-belly prices were extremely low, and the research group IBISWorld reported that “rising health concerns have curbed demand for bacon somewhat, as consumers have shifted their diets away from foods that are high in fat and cholesterol and toward a more well-balanced diet.” But then those low prices encouraged yet more restaurants to put bacon on their menus, and now, according to Bloomberg, Americans are on track to eat “the most pork since 2007,” the year bacon supposedly jumped the shark.
Therefore, I give in. I must make my peace with a culture that loves bacon but expresses that love in ways I find repugnant. And I will do my best to find a bit of hope—crispy, fatty, salty, smoky hope!—in the idea that bacon unites us. I’m thinking in particular of New York City’s breakfast carts, which seem mostly to serve turkey bacon. Now, to many, turkey bacon is an abomination, the perversion of a pure porcine purpose. But turkey bacon is there in the carts so that all may partake of its goodness (or, really, badness). Bacon is aspirational. To consume it, whatever its animal or vegetable origins, is to affirm one’s place in America. It’s our communion wafer. We can talk about bacon in an elevator, and that may just be enough. Or it’ll have to be, anyway. E pluribus bacon!
You know what? I’m hungry. It’s time for me to make a grilled cheese and bacon sandwich for lunch. But before I go, let me make one last request of America’s bacon maniacs, to ensure we all get along. I’m sure it’s what they’d want to tell me, too: Shut up and eat. Please.
Matt Gross is the former editor of BonAppetit.com and was the Frugal Traveler for the New York Times from 2006 to 2010. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, his daughters, and his collection of hot sauces.