Bringing Home the Bacon A history of America's favorite meat-candy
Bacon is a “heritage food,” if there is such a thing. Beyond breakfasts, it finds its way into baked-goods and even booze. Here are more reasons to love bacon, and some intel about the pork product many couldn’t live without.
Bacon Throughout the Ages
9000 BCE: The peoples of the Middle East were the first to domesticate the wild pig, and for that, they deserve a huge shout-out. It’s unclear how they acquired the foresight to hunt and consume a pig’s underside, and how they got it into their heads that these ugly beasts might be tasty is beyond our understanding. Although we’ll never know why they chose to hunt this particular animal, we are glad that they did.
1500 BCE: The Chinese were frontrunners in using salt to preserve their food. Salting pork brought out the flavors of the meat, and serendipitously created the first modern form of bacon as we know it.
Roman Era: Since pigs are an easily domesticated, sustainable source of food, the Romans took advantage and consumed a lot of pork. They called their version petaso, which was boiled with figs, browned, and seasoned with pepper sauce. While we can’t say that we’ve tried it before, 50 million Romans can’t be wrong!
12th Century: “Bringing home the bacon” doesn’t just mean that you make the big bucks. In Dunmow, England, a church was offering a free slab of bacon to any man. The catch? The man had to swear before God and the congregation that he had not fought or quarreled with his wife for a year and a day. The man that could “bring home the bacon” was always highly respected. The historical record doesn’t suggest that Dunmow ever had a pig shortage.
1492/1539: Christopher Columbus and Hernando de Soto brought pigs over to the New World in 1492 and 1539, respectively. Their meager pig horde quickly ballooned to over 700, as Native Americans fell in love with the flavor of pork. Apparently, the indigenous peoples of the “New World” accepted the pigs as a sort of peace-offering; or maybe pork-barrel diplomacy greased the wheels of cooperation. It is unlikely that, in the 21st century, a gift of pork would smooth international relations… anywhere.
1600s: Because of the ease of production and its long shelf-life, bacon became a staple food. European peasants, who couldn’t really afford higher quality meats, made this an integral part of their diets. If you’re detecting a tinge of jealousy here, you’re not wrong.
1924: Oscar Mayer finally introduces pre-sliced bacon sold in a convenient package. The American public is shook. This begins the American obsession of the delicious combination of salt, fat, and pork belly, and the modern bacon era in the US of A.
1939/World War 2: In the midst of the war effort, every family was expected to do its part. People were expected to be rationing, and bacon was reasonably priced enough to consume on a regular basis. The leftover bacon grease was then donated back to the butcher, who would contribute it to the war effort. Aside from being incredibly tasty, bacon fat was also used to manufacture explosives.
1950s: The United States becomes a pork powerhouse, producing billions of pounds of bacon a year. We just can’t get enough of the good stuff.
1990s: Even though bacon is just as delicious as ever, diet fads and healthy eating take the nation by storm. Undeterred, bacon lovers just end up switching their meats to a low fat alternative: turkey.
21st Century: In the modern era, bacon consumption reaches its peak and eventually, saturation. Bacon as a food is no longer enough. Hail all-things-bacon: Bakon Vodka, Bacon Lip Balm, Bacon Explosion, Bacon Alarm Clock, Bacon Cupcake, Bacon Bar, etc…
Will this rash of bacon bacchanalia ever end?
How Bacon is Made
Feel free to dig in and eat every part of a pig, but only the pork belly gets transformed into bacon. To prep the belly, it is cut away while separating the loin, ribs, and skin from the rest of the body. The next step is to prepare the curing mixture by combining salt, sugar, sodium erythorbate, sodium nitrite, and water. This not only prevents spoilage but also imparts the familiar smoky flavor of cured meats. After the bellies are injected with the curing mix, they are allowed to sit for up to seven days for the full development of a deep flavor. It will then be sent to the smoker for further flavor-development, both inside and outside. The product is then cooled just prior to slicing and packaging.
3 Things to Love About Bacon
- Suitable for everyone and on everything. We recommend bacon to everyone who enjoys food (ages five and up). Bacon and eggs, bacon on burgers, bacon-wrapped turkeys, bacon hash, etc… Turn an otherwise bland meal into a flavor explosion simply by adding this salty item.
- High in vitamins and saturated fat but low in carbs. While bacon won’t be winning any food awards anytime soon, it has no carbs. The saturated fats will end up keeping you fuller for longer, too. As if that wasn’t enough already, it’s also full of B vitamins (Thiamin, Niacin, Vitamin B12, Zinc) that are important for your health. Skip the multivitamins and pick up a pack of bacon.
- It can be cooked anywhere. Depending on your cooking expertise (and how lazy you are), there’s a method for you. Make it in a skillet, use the microwave, or bake it in the oven. It doesn’t really get any simpler than this.
3 Things Not to Love About Bacon
- It’s high in sodium, nitrites, and nitrates. Eating cured meats too often can increase the risk of heart disease, so watch your consumption. One single slice of bacon contains 192 milligrams of sodium. Since the recommended daily limit is 2,300 milligrams, practice bacon-gorging in moderation.
- It’s getting more expensive. Frozen pork belly inventories were only at 17.8 million pounds, which is the lowest level it’s been since 1957. Prices were up 23.8% this year, though farmers are keeping up with demand. However, amidst strong US and international demand, our reserves are being depleted.
- Bacon is, at the end of the day, a processed meat. Pork isn’t a serious threat to humans, but bacon goes through many changes before arriving on your dinner table. Bacon has to be salted, cured, fermented, and finally smoked. The chemical compounds that are added to the meat aren’t the healthiest options. It’s also one of the greasiest foods because of the high amount of fat content.
Why is Bacon So Good?
There’s a very short list of things that can get us up in the morning. The smell of bacon is definitely one of them. The combination of grease, flavor, and crunchiness can even render some vegetarians powerless to resist. Food is great, but why does bacon in particular taste so good? The majority of bacon flavor comes from the breakdown of the fats. As it’s cooked, it yields compounds like aldehydes, furans, and ketones. These molecules contain distinct tastes that work together to produce the bacon flavor that you love and enjoy. Even missing just one of these molecules will drastically alter the taste.
Fatty acids differ depending on pig breed and diet, making it easy to ascertain meat type by deriving the fat in membranes of muscle cells. During the curing process, the salts will change the pork belly flavor by altering the chemical reactions of the fats. Smoking bacon with wood chips releases acrid-smelling phenols and sweet compounds, which is where we get an authentic smoky flavor.
Cook the Look
If you’re not kitchen-shy and are feeling particularly adventurous, the Bacon Explosion will stimulate your taste buds in exhilarating fashion. This mix of bacon, sausage, and barbecue sauce will satisfy even the most passionate pork lovers.
Even if your culinary skills are confined to the microwave, don’t suppress or hide your love for bacon. There’s a (non-edible) skinny tie, regular tie, and even socks to help you celebrate bacon without all of the grease.