It was with a deep, deep satisfaction that I saw the following headline on my phone the other day: "Wendy's Phases Out Cheap Bacon, Prices Likely to Reflect Upgrade." (Right, like you too don't have a Google News alert for "bacon cheeseburger.") For years, I've been railing against the dismal quality of fast-food bacon in the U.S. Can we really call ourselves a great nation if we can't even put a respectable slice of bacon on our burgers? We, who invented the hamburger? Even more depressing is the fact that these flaccid slices are found sprawling, like rotting seaweed, atop the very sandwiches that promise veritable meatgasms upon consumption the giant, multilevel calorie bombs that you see think pieces written about. The U.S.'s restaurants and supermarkets are in the midst of a golden age of bacon, and it's high time that the big burger chains get with the program.
The bacon explosion, as the trend is now called after its most memorable manifestation, an angioplasty-inducing recipe that went viral a while back is old news by now. The U.S. has gone bacon-crazy. There are bacon alarm clocks that wake you up with the smell of the real thing cooking, bacon-flavored gumballs and wallets that look like bacon, not to mention restaurants selling pork belly, cured and otherwise, with a rapidity that even their proprietors find startling. It was therefore especially shameful when Wendy's, in attempting to ride the trend, came out with a burger in late 2008 called the Baconator and then put a limp parody of pork on it. The chain has actually been transitioning in the new, applewood-smoked, center-cut bacon for some time now; the newly announced upgrade will only affect the low-end burgers, which will likely start coming with a slightly higher price tag. Can we all agree that a bacon cheeseburger should cost more than 99 cents? Especially once Wendy's started giving its pricier sandwiches the better bacon, which is actually pretty good, at least on par with something you'd get in a good diner. And for a fast-food chain, that's saying a lot.
Of course, Wendy's isn't alone in its bacon infatuation. It's a maxim of the restaurant business that if you add bacon to a dish, it will sell 40% more. And why not? Bacon is essentially a cheap way to add saltiness, sweetness, smokiness and richness to any dish. That's why it's most indispensable on the blandest of all foods: chicken-breast sandwiches, Brussels sprouts, BLTs (bacon-lettuce-tomato sandwiches). And of course Wendy's burgers, which have (in my opinion, anyway) the dullest, most flavorless meat of any major burger chain which is also saying something. The truth is that the Wendy's bacon upgrade isn't a marketing gimmick; it's a sign of the times. Bacon is changing the way we eat in the U.S. It's been called, with some justice, the new olive oil; and like olive oil, there's still too much of it that is misused, and that's of mediocre quality.
Which is really too bad. Just as the Wendy's burger is a gray, dry, flavorless patty, the upgraded bacon Wendy's is using is still a shadow of what our bacon should be. Applewood sounds good, but it's a mild, milquetoastish flavor lacking all the elemental oomph of hickory the defining taste of bacon, in my mind. (It's a sad fact that almost all the high-end bacon producers use applewood these days; maybe that can be my next battle.) Likewise, the center-cut pork bellies used by the chains have the mildest of cures behind them. They're ordered through vast central authorities, whose identity, Wendy's informed me, is kept secret as a matter of policy, and no doubt draw upon immense factory farms whose conditions, though improving, are generally abominable. Wendy's knows this and deserves special credit for developing a major animal-welfare program, even bringing in the animal-welfare guru Temple Grandin to consult on bettering the pigs' lot. But with huge producers, change is likely to happen slowly, and usually by crowding out many of the small-scale producers.
That's a shame, because not only does the bacon that is produced by smaller, independent farms taste better, but also it's one of the only products that these farms can effectively monetize. If Wendy's and chains like it were to really step up, they'd start using bacon more like that of Benton's, Vande Rose Farms or North Country. These farms are doing right by the pigs they raise, and in some cases even allowing outsiders to observe the unstressed, uncrowded animals. Wendy's commitment is laudable, but unverifiable unless its sources go along with it, allowing complete access to visitors. And good luck with that, given their secret identity.
The small farm is the U.S.'s glory and never more so than when making bacon. As somebody with a bone-deep love of bacon and an almost-Ph.D. in U.S. history ("all but defended," as they say in academia), I am gratified to think of these independent farms continuing a tradition that goes back to the earliest days of precolonial settlement in the U.S. Pigs were the only livestock many settlers took with them, and they ran as free as their owners did, foraging and feeding on their own, and then, once bumped off for the greater good, getting preserved by salt and sugar and smoke. It was the best and often the only nonperishable protein anyone had access to and the only source of revenue as well. Today's farmers can't match the big producers in offering low prices, but the bacon they make is so much better that it's well worth paying a little bit more for it.
Wendy's is already trying to get better at bacon. If it can get better still, it's on us to support the chain by paying an extra quarter for it. The farmers will thank us, the pigs will thank us, and our stomachs will thank us too. Bacon karma has a way of paying off.
Josh Ozersky is a James Beard Awardwinning food writer and the author of The Hamburger: A History. His food video site, Ozersky.TV, is updated daily. He is currently at work on a biography of Colonel Sanders.