Keep your heritage pigs and celery powder—I’ll take my Oscar Mayer
I live in an area of Brooklyn the rest of the country makes fun of when they make fun of Brooklyn. In the middle of my block there’s a food coop where celebrities like the Gyllenhaals often bag groceries. My closest grocery store stocks more flavors of kombucha than Mountain Dew. I live near a larder and an artisanal mayonnaise joint. I tell you all this so you’ll realize how hard it is for me to find something I truly love: cheap bacon.
My nearest Whole Foods has a 20-foot-long freezer devoted to bacon—unfortunately it’s from tiny purveyors that charge an arm and a leg, but don’t actually make a better product than the corporate factory brands. They sure talk a big game on their packaging, though. Vermont Smoke & Cure’s “uncured slab bacon” is “maple brined,” “cob and maple smoked,” with “no nitrate or nitrite added.” Niman Ranch Applewood Smoked Uncured Bacon (Center Cut) has “no antibiotics,” “no added hormones,” and “no animal by-products.” It’s “gluten free” and “sustainable”—but won’t get anywhere near as crispy as I’d like. I much prefer Fairway’s generic store brand ($5.29/pound).
Lacking things is huge in the expensive bacon game. You’re paying more, but getting less. Like Nature’s Rancher’s hickory smoked bacon, which is also uncured, not preserved, and lacking in delicious hormones, antibiotics, nitrates, and nitrites. Wellshire Farms bacon has “40% less fat than USDA data for pork bacon.” I thought bacon inherently needed fat and nitrates to be, well, bacon.
Luckily, the cheap bacons have the good stuff in spades. Oscar Mayer offers a whopping 29 different bacon or bacon-ish products, and whether it’s their standard-bearer “Naturally Hardwood Smoked” bacon, their “Thick Cut,” or even their “Maple (artificial maple flavor added)” bacon, there’s no bragging on the packaging about anything other than the fact that it will taste good. Damn good.
I’m not against haute groceries, and I’m hardly a contrarian. I’m a total snob, a Park Slope yuppie preternaturally drawn to overspending on foodstuffs. I adore 20-dollar bricks of aged gouda, love exchanging my dollar bills for thin sheets of over-priced speck, can’t help myself from grabbing 30-dollar bombers of sour beer. Yet every time I buy a $12 packet of organic bacon at Union Market, I’m inevitably disappointed. I don't give a damn if “heritage” pigs were used—I actually don’t even know what that means—the damn strips almost never deliver the intense flavor burst the same way, say, Hormel “Black Label” ($6.29/pound) does.
“We’ve been making bacon since 1891—longer than all other national brands,” Nick Schweitzer, Hormel’s brand manager, told me. “It’s our craft, it’s our passion, it’s what we do best.” You might think Schweitzer is crazy, or that my palate sucks, but plenty of mass-produced foods are clearly better than their luxury counterparts: French fries, tater tots, nachos, chicken nuggets, cola, ketchup. There’s just some stuff that usually benefits from artificial chemicals and factory processes and not being made from scratch.
I’m not the only food writer who likes cheap bacon. Last year, Niki Achitoff-Gray of Serious Eats gave plaudits to Trader Joe’s house brand. Consumer Reports has continually hurled hosannas to both Wal-Mart and Costco’s branded offerings. The late Josh Ozersky—in the last piece the James Beard Award winner would ever write—revealed his favorite bacon was Oscar Mayer Butcher Cut. (“Embarrassing, but true,” he wrote.) Ozersky may have expressed embarrassment, but if I had to guess why he liked Oscar Mayer—as do I—it’s because it’s tasty, it’s perfect, it’s what we grew up on.
“Almost everyone has a positive memory associated with bacon,” John Cook told me. His restaurant Sweet Chick makes its own bacon using Berkshire pork belly and secret curing spices. “Whether it’s your childhood Sunday breakfast at home, the time you found a new way to cook the perfect piece of bacon, or the BLT your mom used to make you for lunch, ” he noted. He believes the key to good bacon is a solid fat to meat ratio...and you know what kind of bacon has that?
The fact is, all of us have spent most our lives eating cheap bacon and loving it. Every bacon-and-egg sandwich you’ve quickly grabbed from a bodega, every diner side of greasy belts, every “add bacon to your burger for $1 extra”—it was all cheap bacon! And you loved it! It’s only in this last decade when bacon became a meme and fetishizing it and overpaying for it actually became a normal thing to do.
The bacon of our childhoods didn’t need any frills, it didn’t need to use celery powder or beet juice for curing, and it didn’t need to be smoked over some obscure tree’s wood. And unlike the bacon-making artistes out there, Oscar Mayer, Hormel, and other cheap brands aren’t afraid to use the two things that are actually best at curing something: nitrates and nitrites—as in, those crazy chemicals so many of the luxury brands proudly state they don’t use!
In writing this piece, I have so far chosen to only discuss normally sliced bacon, intentionally excluding those pricier cuts of pork belly and fat back some joints have the audacity to label as “bacon.” My personal favorite of this style are the bacon “steaks” you can order as an appetizer at Peter Luger’s Steakhouse in New York. Those fatty, inch-thick puppies go for $4.50 per strip! I have always been fine paying that, impressed with the truly extraordinary bacon that is surely a housemade product… until I learned something incredible. Rumors abound that Luger’s Sizzling Bacon, Extra Thick is actually just Boar’s Head ($5.99/pound)!
If anything, I like the product even more now.
Of course, there’s one expensive bacon that manages to stand above all others. and it would be disingenuous for me to ignore it. In 2007, New York cocktail bar PDT introduced their remarkable Benton’s Old-Fashioned—the classic cocktail made with a bacon fat-washed bourbon. That was the first time I noticed a bacon identified by brand name on a menu: Benton’s Hickory Smoked Country Bacon.
By now paeans to the Madisonville, Tennessee, product have become widespread among the culinary elite, evangelized by big-name chefs like Husk’s Sean Brock and Momofuku’s David Chang. I’ve had it many times in many restaurant settings, but always as a mere element of a dish or drink. Yet, in writing this piece, I realized I had never enjoyed Benton’s the way bacon is most meant to be enjoyed: in the privacy of my own home, still wearing the clothes I slept in.
Finding some slices wasn’t easy. Few places stock it, even in New York. Not Whole Foods, not the snobby shops in my Brooklyn neighborhood. Even Murray’s Cheese, one of the only places in Manhattan that carries it, doesn’t keep it on display at their charcuterie counter. When I asked a Murray’s employee for Benton’s, it was like I was Tom Cruise uttering “fidelio” in Eyes Wide Shut. He immediately sprinted to the back somewhere, returning with a pristine, home plate-sized slab of the stuff, and then sliced it for me.
Benton’s is not cheap, but it wasn’t nearly as pricey as you’d expect for such a vaunted item (certainly not as expensive as the $92/pound acorn-fed Jamón ibérico on display at Murray’s). $15.99 got me a pound and nearly 20 slivers of what is near-unanimously considered America’s finest bacon. Not bad! (You can also order it direct from the farm, $30 for four one-pound packs).
But how was is it? Last Sunday morning, still in my boxers, I both fried and roasted a few dozen strips of Benton’s alongside my control bacon, the significantly cheaper Oscar Mayer flagship product. Benton’s is famed for its extreme smokiness—owing to the intense hickory it’s prepared over. It’s the Islay scotch of bacon. I could literally smell it through the deli wrap as I rode the subway home. Unlike the wetter and slimier Oscar Mayer, which is downright unpleasant to handle raw, Benton’s peeled off its wax paper likes strips of prosciutto di Parma. Baconmeister Allan Benton claims that’s because his product is aged 15 to 18 months—on a rub of brown sugar, salt, and sodium nitrite (yes!)—while typical bacon just gets a few months of aging.
The bacon cooked up so nicely it soon looked like the emoji for bacon. None of the corners curled up, no little flecks broke off, and no spitting nor reservoir of grease formed like with those cheaper bacons, which are often pumped full of a quick-curing brine. Benton’s taste was likewise perfect—intensely smoky and intensely salty. I could understand if certain folks might find either of those qualities a degree too punishing, but I didn’t. Even next to an omelet or as the first letter in a BLT, Benton’s was the star of the show. Way complex, way flavorful, and way balanced between the salty/sweet and fatty/meaty.
“Aww, it’s not a difficult business,” Benton humbly told Food Republic last year. “It’s not rocket science. If it was, I couldn’t do it.”
Benton’s is certainly the most expensive bacon I’ve ever bought, and easily the most unique. OK, I’ll admit it, it was also better than any cheap bacon I’ve ever had. But not that much better. Then again, it’s only around 10 bucks more expensive per pound, an affordable luxury if there ever was one.
So what have I ultimately learned? All bacon is kinda cheap bacon. And most all of it is pretty delicious. But you probably already knew that.
Aaron Goldfarb (@aarongoldfarb) is the author of the novels How to Fail: The Self-Hurt Guide, The Guide for a Single Man, and The Guide for a Single Woman. He has written for Esquire, The Daily Beast, Playboy, PUNCH, and First We Feast, among others, often on the subject of craft beer, whiskey, and drinking culture. He is a Syracuse University graduate and lives in Brooklyn.