Bacon—A complicated history

I bought some of that really good stuff at the grocery store today, you know the kind, that small package that costs $150 because it’s all organic, vegetarian fed—little piggy gets to run around free in the pasture before they slaughter him for my breakfast. Only I didn’t wait for breakfast. I wanted a snack tonight so I went to the kitchen and fried up two slices. Just two, that’s a quarter of the 8 oz. package, yes, that means each slice is 1 oz of bacon, mostly fat! But it’s ok, there’s no nitrates or hormones in these babies. You know that magical world where Babe runs free and Charlotte spins fantasy savior tactics until the pig is invincible, only he’s not really because in the end we still eat him. Unless you’re vegan. Which I was for about 8 months. Vegetarian for four years.

I didn’t always eat bacon. Growing up, I wasn’t allowed to, it was against my father’s religious beliefs (among the growing number of religious taboos he added every year). No, we weren’t Jewish, or Seventh Day Adventist, nor Muslim, we were Christian but he read the bible very literally and when god tells those Isrealites not to eat bacon—anything that doesn’t split the hoof and chew the cud—he said that’s it, no more. That includes all bottom feeding seafood as well, no crab, no lobster, and no fish eggs, though I’m not sure why on that last one. Oh well, we lived in the Midwest why should it matter? Oh yeah, and we didn’t celebrate Christmas, but that is another story. So instead of real bacon, we ate Turkey bacon, which is similar to that cardboard fakon you get if you’re a vegetarian.

But there’s no substitute. There’s been a bacon revolution of late I’m sure you’ve noticed, bacon maple bars, powdered sugar bacon bits—also known as “bacon crack”—bacon on cupcakes, bacon infused vodka, bacon in ice cream. What will they think of next?

In my fourth grade science book I found evidence that pork was really bad for you, a picture of a big pink cartoon pig with a close up drawing of the parasitic cysts in his skin and the knowledge that even at high temperatures there is no guarantee that these parasites can be killed. Plus, why would you want to eat the dead carcass of a parasite? Never mind the dead animal. I showed all my friends in the neighborhood, trying to evangelize them to not eat pork. It was a matter of religion yes, but it was also for their health!

One morning in the basement of my grandmother’s church, I was helping her cook breakfast for her congregation. I began frying up slabs of bacon because her religion—Pentecostal—didn’t forbid her to eat pork. I respected that. But when she delegated my bacon duty to my friend Amie, I was a little miffed. Or was it the remark, Anna doesn’t know how to fry bacon, they don’t eat it in her house. How did she know I didn’t know how to fry bacon? It was almost a prophetic anti-prophecy. She had no idea how much of my future would involve this very chore.

Every time I fry up bacon—marbled white between salmon colored slivers that shrivel and curl into burnt sienna edges frying in my cast iron skillet—I am reminded of the rows and rows of bacon I fried up at the greasy spoon diner across the street from my house for two years. Every afternoon, as we got slow and the men from town came in for their afternoon coffee and sat at the big round table by the windows and smoked, I stood in the back, red bandanna on my head, over-sized jeans and an inch of grease on my shoes, and fit as many slivers of bacon as I could on the large grill, until I had filled two whole tubs worth of pre-fried bacon for the next morning. If someone ordered a burger, I simply pushed aside the bacon from one corner, scraped off the grease into the grill gutter and tried to keep the rivers of grease away while it cooked.

Two years doesn’t seem long now, but at nineteen it felt like an interminable time, the skin on my hands broke out and up to my elbows from all the water, bleach, latex gloves, eczema, stress. And the Top 40’s Country whining through the stereo didn’t make it any easier. I hated it as a rule, I was a hipster even then, refused to sing along, until one day my knees buckled, I already knew all the words to all the songs, and I began to sing along. I sang in key, off key just for the hell of it, put the twang in my voice, embraced every last lost love, all those girls broken hearts in the rain, all those cowboys with regret. They became my comfort.

And I started to eat bacon. Bacon with eggs, bacon on cheeseburgers, BLT’s.

I’ll never forget the morning my mother and grandmother came to breakfast, their usual 9am Tuesday morning ritual at the greasy spoon diner (also known as The Stage Stop, which confirms my belief that Sand Lake, MI really is a dried up old western town), and after I cooked them some food and my grandma left, I sat down with my mom for my own meal, two eggs over easy, one fat homemade slice of white bread toast, and two gorgeous strips of fried bacon on my plate.  I tore into the eggs, picked up a slice of bacon and ripped into it with my teeth and said, Mmmm, bacon! with a big smile on my face as I looked my mother in the eye.

She said, I can’t believe you eat that! She looked amazed and disappointed.

I looked satisfied. How could I not be with bacon in my mouth? All that salt and fat and curl and hiss, cured and preserved for my palate. I was nineteen. This was my act of defiance. Big I know. But sometimes you have to pick your battles. And what a delicious one this was.

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About Violet Owl

I'm a writer, musician, bicycle rider, sometime poet, artist and dreamer. I like to travel and I feel things very deeply. I wish I could smell subtleties like the residue on a hand that has sliced an orange a half hour ago, but I can't. Which is partly why coffee feels so necessary. The intense scent of it. I breathe in deep like those deep feelings I succumb to. I have decided to dedicate my life to art. I don't know exactly what that looks like, but I'm doing it. A little bit everyday.
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2 Responses to Bacon—A complicated history

  1. I love the way a specific food can lead us into profound territory–I once wrote an essay about something as mundane as toast, and ended up somewhere I never expected. Bacon is perfect; we all have very particular feelings about bacon! On Amazon the other day, the site “suggested” I might be interested in looking at bacon-flavored toothpicks. Why, yes, thank you, I would! Thanks for this beautiful evocation of a life through bacon.

  2. zoeedithcohen says:

    Thanks for sharing this, Anna. There is a lot of interesting juxtaposition going on I think- the fancy co-op bacon you’re eating as an adult vs. that almost kind of disgusting image of the whole griddle filled with bacon and grease at the diner; the rebellious nature of your teenaged bacon consumption (the start of a larger rebellion??) vs. the minor rebellion of eating bacon for a late-night snack, just because you want to…

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