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Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Oh Canada

What does it mean to flavor? To search for delicious? To be makin' bacon? And would a breakfast meat by any other name taste so sweet?

These were just some of the classy thoughts I had Sunday morning while drinking a beer and searing slices of Canadian Bacon. But confusion reigned. Canadian Bacon, whose charms I herald and virtues I sing... that I pair with farm fresh eggs, and top on grilled burgers... that I have literally dreamt about three times this summer alone... well, rumor has it the stuff is neither Canadian nor Bacon.
A Traitor in our Midst?
One of these so-called “Canadians” is fakin' the funk... and the answer might shock you!

To learn more, I called the Embassy back in July. But it was “Canada Day,” and everyone had taken the week off. So I bided time until the Fancy Food Show, then headed to the Canadian wing to speak with someone known only as “the meat guy.” Now I have no idea how someone who shows precisely zero interest in a bacon-related question gets to call himself “the meat guy” (*cough* sleep your way to the top *ahem*), but he was useless and demoralizing. Back to the drawing board......and the Embassy. This time, the receptionist deported me to an Information Center in Ottawa, where a mellifluous young woman answered the line. She informed me (with sincere regret) that she had just moved to Canada from the Côte d'Ivoire, and knew little about “the thing called bacon.”

Back to the embassy! Who now recommended I contact the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade at the Canadian Consulate General in New York.

I promptly lost interest for a solid 2 months, before calling said Consulate General on a whim the other day.

The Consulate has an automated line with a whopping 9 choices, most of which are entirely uneventful. I pressed buttons for the Cultural Affairs liaison (on vacation), “Trade Related and Investment Inquiries” (automated message), and the Media liaison (does not answer her phone), all while a recorded voice assured me: “your call is important.” (I had my doubts.)You know those “bodegas” that only sell things starting with ‘nickle’ and ‘dime,’ and only to people they know? I was starting to feel out of the loop, friend; strategically ignored. So I summoned my courage and dialed one last option–the gravitas-laden #3, emergency services for Canadians in distress–and was told that someone would be with me... immediately.

Yet a mere 7 seconds later (before I even had time to mull the ethical implications of tying up an international emergency line under dubious pretenses), the phone went “click”: emergency services had hung up.

Fear not, gentle reader, I still had an ace up my sleeve: the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. After two wrong numbers, I found myself chatting with someone in Ottawa, a CFI Agent named Mike.

Mike was a great sport, and he quickly settled a few scores. In Canada folks eat “back bacon” or “peameal bacon”: namely, unsmoked tenderloins taken from the pig's back, trimmed lean, lightly brined and salt cured, rolled in ground cornmeal, and sold uncooked.

There you have it. This, it would seem, was the inspiration for our own Canadian-style Bacon (which, because it is smoked, is actually closer in style to an Olde English version).

Still, Mike insisted that it was pretty hard to say which bacon name reigned supreme up north. After all, the east coast calls it one thing, the west coast something else; these can be totally different cuts of meat, or even (he insisted) animals; bacon varies from district to district; it changes with territories and dialects, moods and whims; and this didn't seem to faze him in the slightest:
“After all, perception’s everything, as I always say.”
Meat is what you make of it, I suppose. And as for the misleading Canadian Bacon label? “Could be a trade thing,” he sighed. “Maybe they add maple syrup, eh?” (mild laughter, followed by thoughtful pause) “For some, American bacon might look like a dollar sign for all I know. As I said, perception’s everything.”

Well-said: when it comes time to decide what makes a “bacon” Canadian, perception really is a big part. And honestly, does it matter what folks in Manitoba or Manhattan call it, so long as it ends up on my eggs benedict? Wouldn't thin-sliced tenderloin, juicy and seared, taste as good by any name? In any country?

Oh yeah.

Til Tuesday,

–J. SlabStill hoping you might learn something?
  • Bacon in Canada–peameal or back bacon–is: unsmoked, pickle-brined, taken from the hog's back, trimmed, and rolled in a cornmeal crust. It is sold uncooked, and owes the “peameal” moniker to the ground dried yellow peas (now corn) that originally helped preserve the meat. Rumor has it this stuff is super plump and juicy.
  • You can find the real deal at the aptly-named the REAL Canadian Bacon Co. President Ken Haviland, originally of Ontario, attributes America's Canadian-style Bacon confusion to a marketing move. (Something akin to calling mayo and ketchup “French Dressing”?). Check out his site, or call 1-866-BACON-01: he imports peameal and ships it to folks from Troy, Michigan. He also offers recipes, answers questions, and sings a mean “Oh Canada.”
  • Misleadingly-named Canadian Bacon, more accurately Canadian-style bacon (smoked tenderloin, English in origin), is the norm in America. Avoid anything that looks unnaturally round and overly processed: these rubbery, water-added renditions taste like old ham. Not aged... old. Like soggy sweatsocks, or moist leather. Or a bunion.
  • In NYC, you can find tasty Canadian-style renditions at your favorite Polish butcher. We like a few places in Greenpoint. And our hands-down favorite comes from Flying Pigs Farm; look for a package with tender fat clinging to the sides, then cook it quick (in butter or rendered strip bacon) before Ms. Slab gets home.
  • Confusingly, according to Google Trends the top 4 cities searching for the phrase “Canadian Bacon” are Canadian; Chicago narrowly edged out Montreal for the coveted fifth spot. Neither “peameal” nor “back bacon” registered enough hits to be counted.

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