When I was a kid, my father required that my mother prepare a hot breakfast for me and my brothers each morning. My mother, half-awake because she stayed up reading very late most nights, stood over the stove in her legendary pink bathrobe, a few curlers in her hair, wielding a spatula with a hand that often also held a cigarette.
The fare was always the same: toast, bacon and scrambled eggs. When my father was in town, he assumed the duties and often prepared soft-boiled eggs. I did not like eggs in any form except hard-boiled. Their texture made me gag. So, I was very happy when they were branded poisonous because of their cholesterol content.
But I was not so happy when bacon was equally reviled for its nitrites and nitrates. I quit eating it because it was blamed for cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. I tried the substitutes like turkey bacon and weird stuff made out of tempeh, but it was never the same. Besides the taste, I missed the aroma of bacon frying in its own unquestionably unhealthy grease.
Eventually, of course, medical science reversed itself and decided that eggs weren’t so unhealthy, after all. I soon learned to love them. And bacon’s risk as a cause of chronic health problems has also been since retracted as a case of massive overstatement. It turns out that celery is a much more abundant supply of the nitrate used to cure bacon. That was good news for everyone in the meat curing business, although the stigma has lingered. Harold McGee of the New York Times took up the subject in relation to hot dogs three years ago and his words apply equally to bacon:
Consumers remain wary of nitrite-cured meats. And United States Department of Agriculture regulations forbid the use of pure nitrate or nitrite in foods labeled “natural” or “organic.”
So ingenious manufacturers figured out how to replace the pure chemicals with a mix of nitrate-rich vegetable extracts and bacterial cultures that convert the nitrate into nitrite. (Celery-juice powder, for one, is especially rich in nitrate and has little flavor of its own.) As a result, natural and organic hot dogs that once were quite drab are starting to look better.
According to a review from the American Meat Science Association, recent studies at Iowa State University show that careful formulation and processing can produce vegetable-cured hot dogs and hams that are quite similar to their nitrite-cured models in color and flavor. They are not, however, free of nitrites or nitrates, no matter what the label suggests.
What explains this mania? For baby boomers like Homer Simpson it’s certainly in part nostalgia for youth. It’s the same yearning behind the resurgence of hamburgers, cupcakes, gourmet ice cream, pizza and all other grown-up versions of kiddy food.
In Barnett’s premature obituary, she hypothesizes that a kind of reverse snobbery has also helped maintain the mania:
For a while, loving bacon was the anti-foodie food trend: snobbery (what, you don't like BACON? I guess you've never had the good stuff) disguised as egalitarianism (everyone can afford it; everyone loves it). Ostentatiously declaring one's love for, and consuming large quantities of, bacon (and its partner-in-trend, pork belly) became a sign of joie de vivre, an indication that you were spontaneous, fun, up for anything. Suggesting that a battered, deep-fried, bacon-wrapped bacon sandwich might not be the subtlest or most enjoyable food experience, conversely, meant you were a killjoy. And suggesting that massive bacon consumption might have health implications made you a food Nazi—one step up from a granola eater or, worse, a vegan.
I think that’s basically true, but I don’t think it’s the whole story. Many of bacon’s younger consumers — and not just the hipsters Barnett cites — were denied the joy of demon bacon as children. For them, it’s a delicious novelty of virtually absurdist, surreal proportions enabled by postmodern food technology. Bacon vodka. Bacon chocolate. Bacon-maple ice cream (at Morelli’s). Log onto Bacon Today for the full bacon theater of the absurd. There is nothing, it appears, that can’t be flavored with bacon and, of course, if the bacon is straight up, it needs to be from a first-class smokehouse like Benton’s.
Like Barnett, I’m ready for baconmania to ebb. Bacon, along with its cousin pork belly, needs to be placed on the shelf of the formerly fashionable for a while. Of course, the suggestion invites exactly the reaction Barnett cites — characterization as a culinary killjoy snob. Fine, but I’d even settle for a little restraint. When it’s reached the point that bacon is hard to avoid, it’s time for chefs to give us a new obsession.
For discussions of whether bacon is unhealthy, check out these links:
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