There’s only one Elvis. There’s only one Babe Ruth. Aand there’s only one bacon. Writer Josh Ozersky considers the phenomenon.
For many people, the Bacon Explosion is a football-size, bacon-wrapped cake made of bacon-stuffed sausage. The dish, created by barbecue bloggers, might be the most popular Internet recipe of all time. But the real Bacon Explosion is a cultural one. Over the last dozen years or so, bacon—as old an ingredient as there is in America—began to wield outsized power. Bacon was outrageous. Bacon was cool. Restaurants that added bacon to a dish instantly sold more of it. Small and remote smokehouses became names dropped by three-star restaurants to increase their credibility. You began to see bacon T-shirts, bacon candy, bacon wallets. Some products were good: Chocolate chip cookies laced with caramelized pieces of bacon from Manhattan’s Milk & Cookies Bakery are a great thing (for the recipe, click here). Some were awful: bacon perfume and bacon air freshener, to name two.
At this point, if bacon were a trend, it would be over. But it’s not. Kale and ramen burgers will come and go, yet our national fascination with cured, smoked pork belly is everlasting—it’s a full-blown obsession. By my reckoning, it’s been going on for no fewer than eight years and shows no sign of stopping. Some horrible things have come from it. But nothing like the Bacon Explosion has happened in the food world before, and I don’t believe it can ever happen again. There’s only one Elvis. There’s only one Babe Ruth. And there’s only one bacon.
All the goofy novelties of the past few years tend to obscure bacon’s long backstory. In fact, bacon is a crucial part of our national culinary DNA, part of our collective lives since the earliest days of America. No other food has been so important. Bacon sustained the first colonists, who were too poor to own cows and didn’t have the benefit of refrigerators; the salted meat could be kept indefinitely. Pork-packing turned Chicago into a major US city after the Civil War and, by extension, helped build the railways that shaped the nation. A hundred years later, when the pork system had become so complex and unpredictable that farmers had to freeze pork bellies and stash them away for an uncertain future, hard-driving commodities traders made fortunes gambling on prices. Bacon was even the object of one of the first great modern propaganda campaigns, masterminded by Edward Bernays, a nephew of Sigmund Freud and considered the father of modern public relations. It was Bernays who, at the behest of the Beech-Nut Packing Company, first brainwashed us into thinking of bacon and eggs as cosmically linked. As a result, they’re now our country’s iconic breakfast meal.
More recently, in the early- to mid-aughts, when the “Baconaissance” first hit big time, chefs were the major bacon influencers. Tom Colicchio at New York City’s Craft and Michael Symon at Cleveland’s Lola were moving away from the flashy dishes and esoteric recipes of the ’90s; their motto was “it’s all about the ingredients.” They didn’t make San Francisco garden food, though. This was rugged, rustic throwback food that genuflected to farmers, ranchers and smokehouses. A younger generation of chefs, like David Chang in New York City, Sean Brock in Charleston, South Carolina, and Ed Lee in Louisville, Kentucky, took the trend even further: For them, various forms of bacon, ham and pork belly were the main course, not just an ingredient added to the brussels sprouts. (Of course, they were doing genius things with the brussels sprouts, too.) These young chefs almost instantly became the focus of a new social-media hive mind populated by pork-loving foodies who were also budding bloggers. The bacons that these chefs called out on their menus—Iowa’s Vande Rose and La Quercia, Tennessee’s Benton’s, Wisconsin’s Nueske’s—began to register as something like luxury goods. Which they are. Craft production, sanctified by the all-powerful label of “artisan,” became a cult led by long-bearded priests in smokehouses, bakeries and microbreweries across the country. You can hear the echo of bacon worship in the words of every waiter who has described his restaurant’s charcuterie program: “We use heritage pork and cure everything in-house."
Besides the pork-savvy chefs and their social-media fans, are there other reasons bacon has emerged from its back-burner place in history? Culinary historians will debate this question for years, but I have some theories. In the late ’90s, America was ripe for a bacon takeover because it had just been dominated by lean-meat, life-hating diets. For New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells, the bacon explosion was part of “a bigger rediscovery of the flavor of meat and fat” after years of pale pork and skinless chicken breasts. It was a rags-to-riches story, written in pork grease.
Plus, to a generation warned from infancy about the evils of cigarettes, drugs and unprotected sex, bacon seemed badass. It was vaguely edgy but still utterly safe—a kind of culinary Coldplay. “America has become a very ‘safe’ place,” cultural critic Mark Crispin Miller says. “When it comes to real rebellion, we’ve all surrendered where it counts. Instead, we brag about eating bacon, which is pretty lame after all. It’s not like bacon is a controlled substance.”
Bacon may not be a controlled substance, but it is pure pleasure, sensual to its core, a concentrated wave of ecstasy. Nothing brings the bliss like bacon: a sudden rush of saltiness and sweetness and fat and smoke, and no fewer than six types of umami. A bite of bacon is candy and cream and sizzling steak and smoky barbecue, all at once. It is, in a word, explosive, and it’s an explosion that will only stop when its fuel—our appetite for it—runs out. Which is to say, never.
I just hope no one ever gives me another bacon tie.
James Beard Award–winning author Josh Ozersky is editor at large for Esquire and author of The Hamburger: A History.