The Great Bacon Tastin' (Part 1)
If you ask us, one conquistador rises above the rest: Hernando de Soto. After all, he brought America her very first pigs in 1539, absconding with 13 of Christopher Columbus' private stock from Cuba en route to Tampa Bay. What's better, in three short years his modest heard multiplied to a plump 700. Pigs were soon on the move, following folks like Walter Raleigh and Hernán Cortez north and west, and populating regions from New Mexico to Virginia to New York. (Certain parts of Manhattan literally became pig pens. The animals overtook, and were cordoned off, in what is now Wall Street.)
As the porcine population multiplied, so did the need to store its meat. Flavor-forward colonists began experimenting with ways to preserve pig for year-round consumption, and cured smoked bellies proved especially compelling. So popular was this technique that it soon took on the Old French word (bacon, from the Teutonic backe) for pork. That's right, friend: in the new world, bacon was now synonymous with swine. And both were here to stay.America's love affair with bacon may run centuries deep, but our amour fou shows no signs of slowing. Or so the numbers suggest. Last year domestic sales rose 10%. We spent a collective $2.1 billion on the stuff. At an average of $3.37 per pound, this adds up to over 300,000 tons, or about 32 ounces for every man, woman and child.*
(* including vegans.)
Which sounds well and good, but the Slab is here to say: America, you can do better. Because, unless you're Gandhi, two pounds of bacon per annum is embarrassing. And if you're spending less than $4, you're probably also cheaping out.Trust us on this one. Tough times notwithstanding, bacon is an affordable luxury, and spending a little bit more reaps exponential flavor rewards. Because today's America is a veritable WWWB (Wide Wide World of Bacon). Producers hail from all over our fair land, curing bellies to suit every mood and whim: salty slabs for a BLT, something sweet to eat with eggs, peppered slices to spice up your day. Bacon is obviously great, but it is also surprisingly diverse.
How do we know? The Porkchop Express spent the better part of 8 months executing a Blind Bacon Tasting which we can proudly share with our loyal readers. This endeavor began with an unmanageable list of candidates. Norma Ortiz and our friends at Grateful Palate helped trim the fat and refine our ranks. We eventually settled on a lean, mean, great eight: 8 terrific bacons from 8 different states in 8 different styles, chosen to represent different regions and flavor profiles.
Our next challenge was to devise a rating system, one that did not fall into the typical tasting traps (read: arbitrary, unhelpful). We wanted detailed assessments: coherent, accessible explanations of each product, and a clear sense of the judging standards. Which is to say, we wanted to provide readers with a roadmap rather than a rote ranking, a set of options conducive to achieving personal bacon bliss.
Towards this end, we developed a patent-pending Porkchop Express Blind Bacon Tastin' Ballot which incorporates nine rating categories, tasting notes, and additional points awarded for overall favorites, best BLT bacon, best breakfast bacon, and “sexiest” bacon. The final piece of the puzzle was soliciting a panel suited to the task. The last thing we wanted were a group of writers (ugh) or (worse? better?) hungry friends. So we selected judges from different food-related fields: chef, charcuterie distributor, newspaper guy, magazine fella, Food Network woman. Then, with a hybrid oven/griddle technique (to render the fat and finish it off) we cooked and ate pounds and pounds and pounds of bacon – over 20 in total. And we studied the ballots, crunched numbers in three ways, and came out with three top picks amongst eight exciting options.
For the sake of objectivity, J. Slab DID NOT contribute to the final rankings. This is because I know many of the producers, and cannot even pretend to feign a sliver of objectivity when bacon is involved. So I left the number crunching to our distinguished panel, and limited my input to supplemental tasting notes.
Scottish philosopher David Hume knew all too well that standards of taste are hard to settle upon. So we didn't. Three “winners” notwithstanding, each bacon offers something special in its own right. Rather than look to the top, get a sense of what sounds best to you and follow your hunches. Because, by gum, this is America; and everyone has the right to enjoy a slice of cured pork belly in a style they enjoy at their own leisure.
So tune in next time, all will be revealed. Results, that is; delicious, delicious results.
Til then, peruse our lineup, tasting criteria, and judge biographies below... then get ready to Meat your Favorite Makers in what can only be described as The First Ever Porkchop Express Blind Bacon Tasting.
– J. Slab
- Benton's (Madisonville,TN)
- Burgers' Smokehouse (California, MO)
- J. Samuel Whiting Fresh and Smoked Meats (New Wilmington, PA)
- Nueske's (Wittenberg, WI)
- New Braunfels Smokehouse (New Braunfels, TX)
- Oscar's Adirondack Smoke House (Warrensburg, NY)
- Vande Rose Farms (Oskaloosa, IA)
- Vermont Smoke and Cure (South Barre, VT)
- Deliciousness (surprisingly, not everything received a '10')
- Quality of Meat
- Flavor: Clean/Natural
- Flavor: Complex
- Rupa Bhattacharya brought a much-welcomed dose of class to our otherwise motley affair. Before joining The Food Network in 2005, she held jobs at Saveur and Wine & Spirits, writing on everything from Chekhov to Pabst Blue Ribbon. And despite a Yale education, she still enjoys the simple pleasures of breakfast sandwiches, banh mi, bourbon, and (I quote) “roasting whole animals.” Rrrarh!
- Jay Cheshes writes about food for Time Out New York, Gourmet, Saveur, and The Daily News. So how on earth does he find time to feature dance at “Scores”? Credit his penchant for “multi-tasking,” and unerring will to be the best.
- Peter Meehan “likes bacon more than you do.” You have read his food musings in publications such as The New York Times and Porkin': A Gentleman's Quarterly. Watch out for his latest venture, the Momofuku Cookbook with David Chang, due later this year.
- Eric Sherman loves to “meat” people. (Ladies, call him!) And as Brooklyn Sales Rep for the mighty D'Artagnan, purveyors of fine charcuterie and carrion, he knows a thing or two about the subject. Add organic farmer, former chef, and underground supper club enthusiast to the mix, and what are you left with? A quadruple threat.
- Ryan Skeen – or should I say Metromix 2008 Chef of the Year Ryan Skeen – is a rising New York culinary star. Having cut his chops with Daniel Boulud, Jean Georges, Andrew Carmellini, Zak Pelaccio and David Chang, he now serves as Executive Chef at Irving Mill. He also licks his chops whenever he sees a fine pork chop. Some would describe his sideburns as mutton-chops. He has a mean (right-handed) Karate chop. And he doesn’t eat Chop Suey, except in France where they pronounce it Shop Soo-ay.