The single-word chant started with a lone voice rising above the barroom din, growing in decibels and intensity as others joined in, creating a silverware-rattling chorus for an unlikely hero of humble beginnings that now enjoys cult-like adulation.
“Bacon … bacon … BACON!”
Yes, bacon, that salty, crispy-curled strip of pork belly, once the Clarence Clemons to eggs’ Bruce Springsteen on your average breakfast plate, has officially achieved rock-star status, regularly inspiring otherwise clearheaded folks to gather and scream its name.
“I call it the ‘Bacon Nation,’ ” said Heather Lauer, a popular Phoenix-based bacon blogger and author of the book “Bacon: A Love Story.”
That pork-inspired rally cry took place last year at Old Ironsides in Sacramento’s midtown, where hundreds of people flocked to hear local bands covering songs from Kevin Bacon movies while noshing on grits with bacon and other dishes. The gathering was part of Sacramento’s annual Bacon Fest, which is back in full swing this week, running through Sunday.
Last year’s scene epitomized just how far bacon has come as a cultural icon. These days, bacon even seems to have its own endorsement deals, with bacon-scented deodorants, bacon-styled bandages, bacon-flavored vodka and other novelty items crowding store shelves and online emporiums.
But why bacon? And why now?
Some say it’s the irrepressible, impossible-to-replicate flavor – and bacon’s Jennifer Lawrence-esque ability to play a starring role in both crowd-pleasing franchises (BLTs, bacon burgers) and high-end fare (the French Laundry’s sweet butter poached Maine lobster tail with bacon).
Others see the surge in interest as an offshoot of the Paleolithic diet trend, an affordable outlet for indulgence in these times of penny-and-calorie-counting austerity. Still others contend that bacon-mania thrives simply because it has no natural enemies – just legions of greasy-fingered fans from all walks of life who rarely share such civil common ground.
In any case, the national appetite for bacon is enormous. According to the American Meat Institute, refrigerated bacon is a growing industry worth more than $2 billion annually. And Sacramento, with its farm-to-fork ethos guiding the culinary scene, has emerged as a bacon boomtown. Previous editions of Sacramento Bacon Fest have resulted in sold-out events and record business for some participating eateries.
“Obviously, bacon’s bigger than anything we could have thought,” said Brian Guido, a co-founder of Sacramento Bacon Fest. “It lends itself to a lot of cuisines, and everybody’s been really happy with it.”
‘An affordable luxury’
Bacon has attracted devotees for centuries. Its low price and long shelf life (from a curing process that includes salting) made bacon a popular peasant food throughout the 1600s. Mass production kicked off in England during the 1770s, and in 1924 Oscar Meyer launched a version of pre-packaged bacon that soon became a staple of the breakfast table.
Bacon demand is gauged by the price of pork belly, the rich and fatty cut used primarily for curing bacon in the United States. Pork-belly prices in late 2005 hovered around 80 cents per pound at wholesale. By the end of 2013, a pound of pork belly fetched $1.90 per pound.
The increase has been attributed in part to a renewed emphasis on breakfast options in fast food and casual dining, as consumers try to save money post-Great Recession without sacrificing taste.
The National Pork Board, a quasi-governmental organization based in Des Moines, forecasts pork-belly prices rising an average of 5 percent to 7 percent for the first six months of 2014 compared with the same period in 2013.
“It’s a lot of small things that have added up,” said John Green, the board’s director of strategic marketing. “Breakfast has played a bigger part in food service, and bacon on breakfast sandwiches is a part of that.
“When the economy went through its troubles in 2008 and people were trading down from premium to casual dining, people got a burger because they couldn’t afford steak. And they would add bacon to make it more indulgent.”
Lauer launched her “Bacon Unwrapped” blog right around the time of the emerging bacon zeitgeist in 2005. The Internet turned out to be a perfect platform for bacon, with this so-called “meat candy” lending itself to silly memes, Facebook fan pages and Twitter feeds.
Lauer said she was inspired by bacon’s every-person appeal, and a conversation with her brothers about Sunday morning breakfast memories.
“Bacon is something that everyone can relate to,” said Lauer. “It has happy memories and there’s an emotional level to it. Most people have been eating it their entire life, and it’s an affordable luxury.”
‘It sells itself’
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s nutrient database, a single slice of bacon contains 42 calories – 68 percent of those coming from fat – plus 3.18 grams of fat and 192 milligrams of sodium.
Recent pro-protein, low-carb diets, including the Atkins, allow for a bit of bacon. And while bacon as health food would be a stretch, many nutritionists say the occasional serving shouldn’t pose a problem for most people.
“The cool thing about bacon is that it’s so strongly flavored that you don’t need a lot of it,” said Julie Tharalson, a certified nutritionist from Fair Oaks. “If you’re making a BLT, you don’t need to put 15 strips of bacon on it. You can sprinkle it over the tomatoes to get that flavor experience.
“All foods can fit into a diet. You just need to be careful of how much (you’re eating).”
The rise in bacon festivals takes that indulgence to a whole new level. More than two dozen cities across the country – from Portland to Tucson to Atlantic City – now host annual events. Baconfest Chicago sold 3,000 tickets in less than 45 minutes. The grandaddy of these events, Des Moines’ Blue Ribbon Bacon Festival, sold 12,000 tickets in 41 minutes.
While Sacramento Bacon Fest showcases several restaurant events over a week instead of a single blowout, turnout tends to be ravenous. Some establishments, including Pangaea Two Brews Cafe and Old Ironsides, have set single-day business records during Bacon Fest. The finale event for Bacon Fest 2014, a chef’s competition at Mulvaney’s B&L, sold out in less than 90 minutes.
Sacramento’s farm-to-table ethos lends itself to celebrating bacon. Local chefs have established relationships with Northern California farmers and ranchers, including Llano Seco Rancho of Chico and Woodland’s Bledsoe Meats, and opt to cure their own bacon instead of serving pre-packaged meat.
“We have the best ingredients in the country here,” Guido said. “We want to showcase restaurants that source good local ingredients and the places that do their own charcuterie, curing and smoking. There’s no agenda here. We just want to promote the restaurants.”
Chefs, meanwhile, prize bacon’s rich flavor and its adaptability to a range of dishes. Among the offerings for the upcoming week: bacon banh mi sandwiches; cocktails with bacon-washed whiskey; beer and bacon bratwurst with bacon mustard; plus plenty of bacon-infused grilled sandwiches.
“Can you think of anything that doesn’t go with bacon?” said Scott Ostrander, executive chef of downtown’s Esquire Grill. “It sells itself, and chefs love working on it because it uses a lot of Old World techniques.”
That’s to say, bacon isn’t like a cake pop or any other flash-in-the-pan fare.
“There’s only one place in Phoenix to get a Cronut, but I can walk a block and get bacon,” Lauer said. “It may not be the best food on the planet for you, but if you want some as a treat, you can get it.”
Source: Sacramento Bee