Throughout most of my twenties, for reasons that would probably make me laugh today if I could remember them, I was a vegetarian. For nearly a decade, I wouldn't go near a porterhouse or a lamb chop or a sparerib. I always made an exception for bacon, though. People thought I was kidding when I explained that bacon wasn't a meat, it was a condiment. But I was serious: Bacon seemed to me like pure flavornot animal, vegetable or mineral but some intensified, distilled essence of sweetness, salt and smoke. I'm not sure I was wrong, either. A recent cookbook was titled Everything Tastes Better with Bacon, and it's true. Everything is better with bacon. Even vegetarianism.
It stands to reason, then, that Dan Philips is one of my few heroes. A contributing editor to FOOD & WINE, Philips is the founder of the Grateful Palate, a wine importer and mail-order epicurean-foods company perhaps best known as the perpetrator of the Bacon of the Month Club. The Bacon of the Month Club works like the Book of the Month Club, except that the book club mails you some fat best-seller that sits on a shelf until your next yard sale, while a pound of bacon from the Grateful Palate usually finds itself in a hot skillet before the mailman can say good-bye. One customer wrote Philips to say that each time a new shipment arrives, her husband dances around the box.
The Grateful Palate now offers more than 30 artisanal bacons from all over the United States, and collectively they outsell everything else in the catalog, including stunning bottles of Australian Shiraz and more esoteric treats, like crimson pumpkinseed oil from Austria. Philips, a native Californian, grew up eating bacon almost every day and still does, but he was nonetheless surprised by the size and excitability of the audience for it. He knew something powerful was at work, but he wasn't sure what. "I don't know much about bacon, other than how it tastes," he told me recently. Then he said that he was thinking of calling on some of his favorite producers to see if he could learn why their bacons are so different from one another. Western Kentucky and Tennessee are particularly rich in makers of country baconpork bellies that are cured with salt and sugar, hung to dry and then saturated with hickory smoke. This suggested to Philips a road trip, starting in Louisville and meandering south-by-southwest down country roads in search of knowledge, wisdom and pork products.