Captain Bacon + his crew of one travel through Kentucky + Tennessee to go hunting for America's best small smokehouses
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 flavor—not 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 bacon—pork 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.
I didn't beg. Perhaps I did drop a few dark warnings about the dangers facing the solitary hunter of breakfast meats in isolated rural areas.
A few days later, Philips sent an e-mail inviting me to ride shotgun on his bacon safari. "I have a few stipulations," he wrote. "1. I must always be addressed as Captain Bacon. 2. No stopping for immoral purposes. 3. You must bathe at least once every day. Other than that, I'm easy to travel with."
I met Captain Bacon at 6 a.m. in front of the Seelbach hotel in Louisville. With full cups of coffee and empty stomachs, we charted a course for Bremen, Kentucky, where Charlie Gatton makes a product he calls Father's Country Bacon. As we crawled along a two-lane blacktop past cornfields and convenience stores (MARLBORO'S $2.10!!!), I mentioned a legendary country-ham producer I'd heard of down in Trigg County, hinting strongly that I might go on a bathing strike unless I was promised I'd leave the state with a ham in my suitcase. "Don't worry," he said. "All the bacon guys we're going to see also make hams." The two meats are cured and smoked in essentially the same way, he explained, but then hams are aged for months while bacon is ready in a couple of weeks.
"If the same people make both things," I asked, "then how come country ham gets talked about as an artisanal product, while bacon is just...bacon?"
The Captain thought it over. "I don't really know," he said. "I think it's because people buy hams for Christmas, for Easter. A ham is an event. Bacon is more of an everyday thing." But toothpaste is an everyday thing, and so are socks. Neither could lure me to the back roads of Kentucky before sunrise. Bacon is an everyday thing, but a mystery, too—an everyday mystery.
About three hours out of Louisville, we turned at a sign that read GATTON FARMS. HOME OF FAMOUS COUNTRY HAMS, BACON & SMOKED SAUSAGE. On our left was a white shingle farmhouse planted in the shade of a 100-year-old cypress tree. To our right was a white fence whose pickets were topped by miniature silhouettes of hams. The door of a low-slung redbrick structure swung open, and Charlie Gatton, Jr., stepped out to welcome us.
A born salesman, Gatton took over his family's cured-meats business two years ago, after his father died. Since then, he has experimented with new products, like smoked rib-eyes, and new ways of reaching customers, including a Web site and appearances on the Home Shopping Network. "Bacon is good for you," he tells viewers. "When you cook it, most of the calories melt away." The Home Shopping phone operator who hopes for a relaxing day at work is in for a bitter disappointment when Charlie Gatton gets in front of the cameras.
Gatton told us cheerfully that we'd come on a good day. Just that morning, he'd received more than a ton of fresh bacon from his packer in Missouri. "Dan, would you like to help us cure some?" he asked.
Clearly, Philips couldn't refuse and still call himself Captain Bacon, so he followed Gatton to a fluorescent-lit back room where half a dozen men worked while Hank Williams, Jr., sang "Family Tradition" on the radio. The sides of bacon, cut from the bellies of freshly slaughtered hogs only the day before, were piled up in rubber bins on the floor. Another bin was filled with Gatton's curing rub: salt, brown sugar, white sugar and tiny amounts of nitrite, a preservative that helps the meat keep its alluringly rosy complexion.
"You just rub the cure all over with your hands," Gatton said. "No, don't brush off the extra. You want to leave some on there." Philips coated a slab with the sand-colored rub until it looked like a boogie board after a day at the beach. Then Gatton laid it down in an empty bin so the salt could begin sinking into the meat and drawing out the water. As the meat dries, its flavor gets more concentrated, giving country bacon the depth and intensity that sets it apart from its gentler, brine-cured cousins.
"Our bacon loses about 12 percent of its weight in water when we cure it," Gatton said. "Supermarket bacon has water added, with needles that pump it full of brine. When I go on Home Shopping, I'll cook a strip of supermarket bacon. It shrinks to half the size of ours."
Back out front in a small retail shop decorated with 14 blue ribbons from the Kentucky State Fair, the Captain had a private word with Gatton while I chatted with Gatton's wife, Lori. She doesn't have her husband's polished spiel, but she is a steadfast believer in the mystery of bacon. Whenever she leaves Kentucky, she packs a little plastic bag of Father's Country Pepper Bacon, cooked and crumbled, because she has discovered that some restaurants of otherwise high quality "don't put any bacon on their salad at all," she told me. "And if I can't have bacon on my salad, I just don't care about it."
We said our good-byes and started for Owensboro to spend the night; nobody has yet thought to build a hotel in Bremen, Kentucky. In fact, nobody has built much of anything in Bremen except barns and grain silos and squat brick houses and places of worship. One church we passed had the kind of sign on its front lawn that you see outside car lots and flea markets. TO GO NOWHERE FAST, it read, FOLLOW THE CROWD.
"This area reminds me of where my mother grew up," the Captain said. "She was from Eastern Kentucky. Appalachia. Her grandfather made bacon, and she used to cook it for me every morning. We went back a few years ago to find her house. It's mountainous there, but somehow it looks a lot like this—kind of bleak."
"Where was your father from?" I asked.
"Hungary. He was an Orthodox Jew. He's the reason I got into wine and food. He was a doctor, and he thought he needed to cultivate an interest in the finer things, so we always had expensive wines at dinner. When I was 14, I took a wine-tasting class, just so I could know more about it than he did. I was always very competitive with him." That this rivalry with his Jewish father set young Dan Philips on a path that has now brought him to his mother's home state in search of the flesh of the swine struck me as material that would keep a psychoanalyst busy for years.
We set out early the next morning for Greenville, Kentucky, home of the Scott family. As we glided south past soybean fields and horse pastures, Captain Bacon phoned for directions.
"She said we look for the turn where it used to say Scott Road until someone stole the sign," he said.
Scott Road, when we finally found it, led us straight to Scott Hams, and to Leslie and June Scott. Like most small smokehouses, the Scotts' operation grew out of a family farm; Les's grandfather cured hams and bacon at hog-slaughtering time each winter. Les, a talkative man in a cap from the American Cured Meat Championship, raises bulls now as a hobby. "Kept pigs once," Les said. "We had 'em down on the other side of that hill there. The guy who built the pen for us said, 'Don't worry, the smell will never reach you all the way up here.' Well, the very first day we had those pigs, the wind was blowing straight toward the house. It was a real hot day, so we had all the windows open..."
The Scotts showed us the parts of the process we'd missed at Gatton Farms. We saw the refrigerated lockers where the bacon ages for two weeks after it's rubbed with the dry cure, and then the smokehouse where it hangs on wood scaffolds for another week in the company of smoldering hickory logs and sawdust. Les Scott's cure is as simple as they come: brown sugar and salt. His bacon can shade in color from pink to nut brown, since Scott uses no nitrites. The Captain asked him why.
"My people didn't do it," Les said flatly. "My dad never did it back on the farm. So I don't do it."
I had now sampled the two smokiest bacons the Grateful Palate sells, and there was no mistaking one for the other. Gatton Farms' was complex and "gnarly" (the Captain's word); and its flavor lingered and developed like a Polaroid coming into focus. Scott's was more straightforward, lucid: If it were a painting it would have been called "Still Life with Smoke, Salt and Pork."
Les Scott's bacon is cured about 10 days longer than Charlie Gatton's and gets a little less smoke. It doesn't have the white sugar Gatton's has, either. But I wasn't sure that the cure and the smoking technique were the whole story. Les said he believed there's more going on, that bacon is changed by the age and the shape and the smell of the rooms where it's made. "I think each smokehouse has its own personality," he said.
Tripp Country Hams is about an hour north of Memphis in Brownsville, Tennessee, one of those small Southern towns centered around a courthouse square. Charlie Tripp works out of a cavernous facility built by his grandfather, who hauled the sand for the building's mortar in a mule cart. The building started life as a meat locker, where, in the days before electric refrigeration, farmers could store what they'd butchered. Somewhere along the line, Tripp's father "started curing a few hams," Charlie said. Today, Tripp's bacon is a favorite among Grateful Palate customers—perhaps because Tripp puts cinnamon and cayenne pepper in his dry cure. Philips asked if his family has always had the recipe.
Tripp shook his head. "No. We were doing it one way, and it made...a good bacon," he said. Good, not great. "But there was this old man who used to have a stand on the side of Highway 70, and he did a little curing. He said, 'I've got a recipe that makes a delicious bacon.' So eventually he gave it to me, and that's the one I've been using ever since." The genius of this mystery man's secret formula became clear a few minutes later, when Charlie Tripp invited us back to his house, an antebellum mansion across the square. His wife, Judy, had baked biscuits and fried some ham and bacon. In the bubbling oil, the spices floated free of the bacon's edges and coated the entire slice. The low burn of cayenne, as many snack companies know, has the effect of making you want to eat more and more, and that's just what we did.
Our bacon safari over, we turned back down Highway 70 toward Memphis. The Tripps had warned us not to drive so much as one mile above the speed limit unless we yearned for an extended vacation in Fayette County, so we had time to soak up the roadside scenery. The far western end of Tennessee begins to look and feel like the Mississippi Delta. Trees are smothered in kudzu, cotton fields flat as a concrete floor extend to the horizon, and tilting frame shacks promise COLD BEER in roughly painted letters. This is the landscape that bred the blues.
The blues and bacon: both born of poverty, both looked down on by people who feel it's worth drawing a distinction between high culture and low. "When Charlie was talking about that old man by the side of the road, I started thinking about Robert Johnson," Captain Bacon said. "The way Johnson said he'd met the devil on the highway, and the devil showed him how to play guitar." Johnson was the great Mississippi bluesman of the '30s whose eerily fluid guitar style was attributed to sorcery.
There is, naturally, a rival theory, which holds that Johnson simply went away for a year and practiced. This is the theory I subscribe to. But then I listen to "Me and the Devil Blues" or "Crossroads" and even the rationalist in me is tempted to say that the song, if not the singer, is in communication with the supernatural.
I'm inclined to be a rationalist about bacon, too, attributing everything to techniques of curing and smoking. But when I eat a slice of great country bacon, I wonder if Scott might be right about the personality of the smokehouse, not to mention the man in the smokehouse, and maybe even the figure by the side of the road who whispered into the ear of the man in the smokehouse. Somewhere in these streaky bands of pig meat is a powerful sorcery that can make a grown man dance around a cardboard box, corrupt a pure-minded young vegetarian and transform the son of an Orthodox Jew into Captain Bacon.
Dan Philips phoned me a few weeks after our trip to say he'd been listening to a lot of blues and eating even more bacon than usual. He'd just received a package in the mail: first-run samples of Grateful Palate private-label bacon, cured and smoked by Charlie Gatton following a recipe that Philips had whispered in his ear on our visit.
Philips said he thought it turned out "pretty damn good" and offered to send me a pound. But no matter how many times I asked, he wouldn't tell me exactly how it was made.
That, he said, would have to remain a mystery.
Pete Wells is a senior editor at Details.
Even in the heart of bacon country, Gus's World Famous Fried Chicken is worth a detour (505 Highway 70, Mason, Tennessee; 901-294-2028).