It started this spring. First there was the friend with the uncharacteristic dirty fingernails. Then that confident co-worker swept off the elevator, tossed her tresses and suddenly there was a faint whiff of wood smoke in the air. Something's happening here, and as foodie bloggers know, it's all about bacon.
Maybe it's a recession-driven money saver, or maybe we just feel the need to get back in touch with what we eat, but Americans everywhere are discovering the pleasures of home-cured bacon. Culinary blogs are replete with homemade-bacon recipes, including how to make pancetta. Mario Batali's recipe for guanciale, cured pig cheek, has gone viral. Leading the piggy parade is food writer Michael Ruhlman, who has challenged his blog readers to make a BLT from scratch including homegrown lettuce and tomatoes and homemade bread shoot a picture, submit it and win a prize: his latest book Ratio.
"No, this does not mean raising a piglet for the bacon or growing your own wheat to grind into flour," Ruhlman wrote on his blog. "Yes, extra credit for either, but I want this to be a challenge that everyone can accept, whether you live in a Manhattan walk-up or rural North Carolina, Alaska or suburban splendor. From scratch means: You grow your tomato, you grow your lettuce, you cure your own bacon or pancetta, you bake your own bread (wild yeast is preferred and gets higher marks but is not required), you make your own mayo."
For instructions on homemade-bacon production, foodies are turning to Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking and Curing, co-authored by Ruhlman and a bible among foodie bloggers, eat-local enthusiasts and cooking professionals. "With Ruhlman and a meat grinder you can make anything," says Jesse Griffiths, Austin chef and co-owner of the Dai Due Supper Club, a dining club that showcases local products and farm produce. "You can see its influence, its impact everywhere."
Griffiths also credits British chef Fergus Henderson, author of The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail Eating, and the "master of offal," Food Network star and San Francisco chef Chris Cosentino, for getting people used to the idea of pig as an almost entirely edible beast. This passion for offal is a sign of Americans awakening to eating whole hog, Griffiths says, and bacon is the door opener. "People try to outdo each other," he says. "'I'm serving lamb testicles,' one person will say. 'O.K., I'm serving the spleen,' another says."
Griffiths teaches the Whole Hog Cooking Class, a two-day event that is a hands-on experience, not a sit-and-sip cooking demonstration. Demand is growing so quickly, he has had to add more classes, tripling the number since he began in 2007. Students arrive at the event to see a whole hog's head simmering in a pot in preparation for making an herb-infused, French-style headcheese. The rest of the hog, raised by a local veterinarian and rancher, is then broken down for a variety of dishes, including sausages, rendered lard, rillettes, pâtés, a bone stock for soup, spit-roasted tenderloin and a braised pork belly all served the following day at what can only be called a pig feast. What is left does not even fill a small tableside bucket, Griffiths says.
Chef Ryan Farr also gets raves from participants in his San Francisco hog-butchery classes. "It gave me a greater respect for my food, which is exactly what I was after when I signed up for the class," food aficionado M. Quinn Sweeney wrote (accompanied by photos) on his blog.
Sweeney, whose blog also celebrates the cocktail, has concocted an alcoholic homage to bacon, the BLTini vodka shaken with tomato water (extracted from an heirloom tomato, of course), vermouth and a basil leaf posing as lettuce, garnished with a crispy bacon bite. And if you drink too many, you can cook up his recipe for braised pork belly, touted as a hangover cure.
"There is nothing bacon does not improve. Bacon is the new black," says Farr, whose charcuterie company produces 4505 Chicharrones, the pork snacks favored by several San Francisco bars and restaurants. "I have five vegan friends who close their eyes when they eat them and pretend they are potato chips," Farr says. "Bacon is the gateway meat."
As Farr and Griffiths see it, this passion for bacon is another manifestation of a growing movement to get in touch with our food by planting it or raising it ourselves, and by eating local products secure in their sourcing as well as a simple enthusiasm for the taste adventure. Just as Americans flocked to garden nurseries this spring to scoop up tomato plants and seeds, now they are sharing tips on where to find the best pork bellies (try local farmer's markets, online sources like Niman Ranch or local Asian and Mexican markets).
And once you've got your hunk of hog, it's a few simple steps to that sublime summer treat, the BLT. Just add sugar and spice, smoke, an heirloom tomato, fresh lettuce and homemade bread slathered with Farr's bacon mayonnaise made not with olive oil but bacon fat.