Bacon reaches new heights of popularity


By Rick Asa
Special to the Tribune
October 28, 2009

From the sublime to the ridiculous, bacon has the entire spectrum in tow these days. As cured pork belly reaches new heights of popularity, pop culture homages to this most tasty of treats are slamming head-on into parody.Bacon-flavored rolling papers giving new meaning to smoked bacon? Check. Diet Coke with bacon? Check. The bacon bra? Checkmate.

Yet all the humor is heavily seasoned with true love for a food that is deeply American. On Saturday, 10 noted Chicago chefs gathered at The Publican for some serious fun, facing off with their favorite bacon dishes in a prelude to next April’s planned Baconfest Chicago at the Stan Mansion in Logan Square.

The winner, chef Chris Pandel of the Bristol, wowed the crowd with “Breakfast Braciole” — house-cured alderwood-smoked bacon, with house-made maple-sage breakfast sausage, braised greens, and hard-boiled egg. Chef Troy Graves of Evewon won the people’s choice award for his pumpkin-bacon-waffle with pomegranate-glazed pork belly.

One of the three baconeers behind this local version of a national phenomenon, Seth Zurer, clearly appreciates the whimsy inherent in shameless bacon worship, yet he notes that he and his comrades, Michael Griggs and Andre “Vonbaconvitch”, absolutely love the stuff. Their collective inspiration has coagulated into Baconfest Chicago, a celebration of all things bacon that will include a full day of events, foods featuring the mystic meat, chefs, sponsors and commercial exhibits.

Like craft beer, bacon comes in as many forms as creativity will allow, Zurer says, and its passionate disciples will unabashedly wax poetic about its merits. In fact, one offers bacon haiku on

Zurer, an actor and writer, says he had a “transformative” experience at Blackbird several years ago. “I’m totally serious,” he says. “I had never been exposed to the idea that you could have fat, striated pork, and have it be gorgeous and silken and everything you’re looking for in a special food experience, and I’m Jewish.”

As serious as he is about bacon, though, Zurer declined to dismiss out of hand a suggestion for a Baconfest event: bacon grease wrestling. He acknowledged that “you have to do something with all that leftover grease.”

One of the 10 chefs who competed in the recent cook-off, John Manion of Goose Island Brewpub, is an intense example of the fine line that bacon has drawn in the pan. While one listener might believe he’s kidding during a soliloquy on all things bacon, a fellow bacon lover would simply nod his head in agreement.

“This is serious business,” Manion says. “In this country, we used to manufacture things — skyscrapers, the V-8 engine. Now we’re No. 1 one for toilet paper and bacon. We do have the best toilet paper in the world. And bacon — you go to France and they think they know what they’re doing. … It’s a good product, but it’s not bacon. We’ve got this down. Chicago needs to claim this. We’re the Hog Butcher to the World.”

When bacon aficionados stop figuratively drooling, they all come around to a well-known fact in the world of chefs: Bacon makes virtually everything taste better. Manion, for one, has used it for many years in many dishes. “There’s nothing I can do to improve on the intrinsic flavor of cured pork belly,” he says.

Heather Lauer, the author of “Bacon: A Love Story,” a book full of bacon bits, agrees that “most chefs would admit that bacon has long been one of their secret weapons in the kitchen.” She further offers that bacon is riding on a backlash against the constant bombardment over what not to eat that has made it more acceptable to indulge in it without feeling guilty. “Current food trends focus on eating real and eating local, and there’s nothing more real than a delicious strip of bacon. In many U.S. cities, local producers and chefs are making a name for themselves because of bacon.”

Manion, for instance, cured his own bacon for the cook-off in old Goose Island Bourbon barrels, which he says is “uncharted territory.” The pork belly he uses is procured from a regional farmer who feeds his pigs with spent grain from Goose Island brewing. “The pigs love it,” he says.

Here’s an unscientific measure of your true bacon love. When you see the recipe for a concoction called the “bacon explosion,” which is all over the Internet, do you want to have some right away? Or do you immediately begin to improvise on bacon bombs and methane and such?

The correct answer to both for a bacon hound is “yes.”