What element turns a couple of slices of ordinary bread, a mundane tomato, and a leaf or two of lettuce into an indescribable culinary delight? What tastes great crumbled on salad, served up fried with eggs and toast, wrapped around a hot dog, or even baked into a muffin? What is said to be the single gateway food that lures more folks back to the omnivorous fold from vegetarianism than any other? It is made into edible roses, quiche, and even ice cream.
You guessed it -- bacon.
At one time all pork was called bacon, but in these modern times we use the term to describe meat from a pig, usually from the belly, back or side, which is cured using large amounts of salt, seasonings, nitrites and sometimes smoked as well.
Here in America we prefer the sides and belly of the pig to make what is called "streaky bacon." Canadian bacon on the other hand comes from the loin and is much leaner. Other nations tend toward the leaner cuts as well. The word itself is thought to have originated with various words for "back" in French and Germanic languages.
Salt curing was one of the favorite means of preserving foods before the invention of refrigeration. Some sources trace the practice of salting meats to keep them from spoiling back at least to ancient Egypt. Other meats and even vegetables were preserved in a similar manner, so people could survive outside of the growing season or travel away from traditional food sources. Indeed early Christianity relied heavily on salt fish to meet the requirements of Lent far from the sea.
We Americans like our bacon. And I mean, we really, really like it. It is tied with pulled pork for popularity here in the U.S., where we enjoy 1.7 billion pounds annually. There are popular blogs devoted entirely to bacon: The Bacon Show and Bacon Unwrapped are a couple of examples. The former features a new bacon recipe every day, and according to the header will continue to do so "forever."
Bacon is versatile. The Paleo Diet, which restricts folks to eating like cavemen, allows bacon.
Even our conversation is laced heavily with bacon-related sayings from "bringing home the bacon" to "saving one's bacon," which merely means to save one's body from harm.
"Bringing home the bacon" is a phrase with disputed origins. Some sources claim that is was first used in Dunmow, England, where men who could swear that they hadn't argued with their wives for a year were given a flitch of bacon. This is contested by folks who insist that the phrase originated in reference to a boxing match in 1906, wherein one of the contenders was said to have managed to return to his domicile bearing cured pork.
It matters not. Folks who use the phrase today obviously consider bacon to be synonymous with success in any endeavor.
And why not? Bacon goes well with almost anything, including for the adventuresome of palate, milkshakes.
Original bacon recipes probably featured curing the meat in a heavy coating of salt and spices with smoking to follow. Today, commercial bacon production involves injection of nitrites and brine, vacuum tumbling, combing, thermal processing, smoking, chilling, pressing, slicing and packaging. Although the process seems more elaborate, it really isn't all that different, with the changes relating mostly to quality control and the handling of large quantities of material in a standardized manner.
There are also a number of recipes for making homemade bacon, but the ones I looked at had me shying away from concepts such as botulism, which was mentioned in more than one article on the topic.
With all this fondness for salty, smoky, flavorful fat meat, the press was in a swivet a couple of weeks ago when the National Pig Association in the U.K. announced that a worldwide bacon shortage was inevitable. The organization cited drought in the U.S. and Russia as making it more expensive to feed pigs and causing farmers to sell off their herds.
However, here in the U.S., a spokesman for the National Pork Producers Council said that, although some pigs are being liquidated because of the high cost of feed, it is happening at a much slower rate than in other countries.
It seems, however, that universal price increases for bacon and probably other pork products can be expected. With a 5 percent rally in corn futures prices just this week it is almost inevitable. Food giant mandates for changes in hog housing aren't going to help the availability of pork products, including bacon.
Steve Meyer of Paragon Economics, a consultant to the pork industry, said on CNBC: "I've been talking about [rising meat prices] since 2006 but nobody would listen until someone said we're not going to have enough bacon. If I'd known that I'd have used different words. Don't take away their bacon."
Meyer went on to say that even marginal increases in prices for foods, including bacon, cause harm where it can least be withstood. "Any time you drive up retail prices -- beef, pork, chicken, turkey, eggs, milk ... it falls on people with low incomes and fixed incomes," he said. "The people who can't afford it."
It makes one wonder whether Marie Antoinette, if she were alive today she might have said, "Let them eat bacon."
At any rate, whether or not there is a shortage of bacon in the offing and whether or not we will continue to be able to afford the salty treat, we can certainly rally around celebration of International Bacon Day, which traditionally (at least since 2000) has been celebrated on the last Saturday before Labor Day. Participants have been known to commemorate the event by gathering to prepare bacon-based menu items and then consuming them. Sounds like a plan to me.
In fact, I propose celebrating every Saturday or maybe even Sundays and week days if the opportunity is afforded. After all -- it's bacon. What's not to like?
Fultonville dairy farmer MARIANNE FRIERS
is a regular columnist. She blogs