BRING ON THE BACON!
Thanks to better farming, it's easier than ever to shout
My Uncle Butch from East Texas doesn't cook much, but he has an opinion on everything, a way with words, and a habit of rising early that often puts him in charge of the first meal of the day. "Give me some flour and some pig fat," he says "and I will cook you some breakfast." Actually, you could almost leave out the flour. Breakfast, to a Texan, to almost any American born in the 20th century for that matter, is all about pig fat. Not just any pig fat, but the rippled, meaty fat from the belly of the pig, preferably cured in salt and sugar, slowly smoked, then gently fried to a caramelized state that makes mouths water, stomachs growl and souls content.
Forget about hot dogs and apple pie. Bacon is the traditional food of our people. I know it's fattening. I know that pig fat is saturated and full of cholesterol. I know that pigs are smart and sweet, and poorly treated, but get that stuff sizzling in a pan beside a pot of coffee and I don't give a flying oink about what's right or wrong. Just give me the bacon.
For a long time, I maintained a state of righteous detachment. I was a teenage vegetarian. Throughout my 20s and 30s, I was a careful consumer, as concerned about how my food choices affected the environment as I was about how they sat in my arteries. But bacon really is different; it puts me at the mercy of my hunter-gatherer instincts.
Knowing this, and aware that if I ate bacon every day I would rapidly morph into a large and bilious savage, I just tried to avoid the stuff. For a long time, I was like a junkie who went cold turkey without ever going through treatment. And probably not surprisingly, every now and then I broke down and went hog wild, so to speak.
In recent years, though, the situation has improved. For one thing, it has become increasingly easy to buy environmentally friendly bacon, wholesome enough to be part of a healthy, normal diet instead of a semi-secret, guilt-inducing fix. And while that may sound like a switch from the exciting to the mundane, it's not. The "new bacons" are even more flavorful and more satisfying than the old mass-produced stuff, and since they are more expensive, it's less tempting to overdo it. Now I see bacon as a luxury item that merits the cost, a fun and healthy food that I feel good about offering to my family.
The new era began just a few years back when I discovered Niman Ranch Applewood Smoked Bacon. Founded in Marin County, Calif., way back in the 1970s, Niman Ranch was one of the first meat producers in the country to reject the use of antibiotics and growth hormones in favor of more traditional farming practices that include caring for the land and more humane treatment of the animals. While pigs at large production facilities live inside on concrete floors under artificial lighting (picture the early scenes of "Babe"), pigs that live on farms under contract with Niman Ranch are free to come in and out of their barns as they please. Deep hay allows them to root and nest to their heart's content.
What's more, the recipes for curing and smoking this pork into bacon and ham create some of the best-tasting meats sold in America. Whenever I eat this bacon, I remember something Bill Niman once said when we were having lunch together: "This pig had only one bad day." Available from the Niman Ranch Web site, www.nimanranch.com, the bacon costs $7.50 for a 12-ounce package, roughly 63 cents a slice, so it's too expensive to eat every day. But it tastes so good that I want to.
More recently, I have become enamored of another natural bacon, this one from Applegate Farms, based in New Jersey, www.applegatefarms.com. At $4.99 for an 8-ounce package, it costs about the same ounce-per-ounce as bacon from Niman Ranch, but since it is sliced a little thinner, it costs only 49 cents a piece. Cured with sea salt and brown sugar and smoked over a combination of apple wood and hickory, "Sunday Bacon" from Applegate Farms is the brainchild of company president Stephen McDonnell.
Like Bill Niman, McDonnell came of age in the '70s and was freaked out by the way the animals are raised on factory farms where they are routinely medicated with antibiotics and growth hormones. He was also squeamish about the use of nitrates in the production process. So when it came time for him to introduce his kids to the pleasures of bacon, he bought a small, family-run smokehouse and, with Chris Ely, the son of the former owner who had acquired a taste for the kinds of meats he had enjoyed on a trip to Italy, he developed a line of products ranging from bacon and hot dogs to pancetta, sopressatta, pepperoni and Genoa salami. My kids like the sliced turkey and roast beef, which I make into sandwiches for their brown-bag lunches.
For my lunch, though, nothing beats a good old-fashioned BLT, preferably served on "Aunt Millie Toast."
Greg Atkinson is chef at IslandWood on Bainbridge Island. He is also author of "The Northwest Essentials Cookbook" (Sasquatch Books, 1999). Barry Wong is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff photographer.
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