Bacon, beyond the gluttony

Camp Bacon, an annual cured pork festival sponsored by Zingerman’s in Ann Arbor, Mich., is a collection of events: Over the course of five days, there are bacon-cupcake baking classes, bacon sampling sessions and bacon games. But the pinnacle of the party is a daylong seminar attended by bacon devotees from as far away as Miami.

Soon after the start of this year’s class, attendees were prompted to break off into small groups and share their bacon stories. That was the cue for the most pork-fixated to start sifting through their phones’ photo albums, pausing on images of interwoven bacon strips and tight rolls of ground pork bound with bacon in a porcine pantomime of sushi. The show-and-tell ended abruptly when staffers started circulating with platters of bacon.

“Part of today’s work is to make sure you don’t go too long without bacon,” Ari Weinzweig, Zingerman’s owner and co-founder, reassured the giddy campers, who an hour before had breakfasted on Carolina gold rice calas seeded with bacon shards, bacon-flecked eggs and toasted bacon bread.

In American popular culture, bacon has become the ultimate symbol of gustatory excess. As Sara Camp Arnold of the Southern Foodways Alliance, Camp Bacon’s fiscal beneficiary, said in her speech, bacon has become “a thumb of the nose to dietary scolds.” Bacon may be tasty, but bacon mania is rarely tasteful: You can buy bacon-scented nail polish, bacon-patterned tuxedos and bacon wedding rings.

Yet after years of gimmickry, bacon has a shot at slightly more elevated status. Presenter Fred Bueltmann of New Holland Brewing Company likened bacon to craft beer, which was initially such a fantastical endeavor that the industry felt like Oz. Now, he said, microbrewers are getting back in touch with reality. Similarly, he argued, it’s time to bring home the bacon.

When Weinzweig in 2010 launched Camp Bacon, which he envisioned as a “Davos of bacon,” he hoped to counter the prevailing notion that bacon was exempt from serious contemplation. “I want to get people off the ‘I love bacon’ thing,” he told The Washington Post. “ ‘Give me any and give me more.’ I want them to know the differences between them and how to use them.”

The following year, Denny’s introduced its Baconalia menu, featuring bacon meatloaf, a bacon sundae and a triple bacon sampler (which, unlike the sampling plates served at Zingerman’s, probably didn’t include examples from famed producers Nueske’s and Allan Benton.) So clearly Weinzweig’s “thinking person’s” approach to bacon connoisseurship didn’t immediately take at the societal level. But a pair of just-released books suggests bacon scrutiny is creeping upward.

In “Lesser Beasts: A Snout-to-Tail History of the Humble Pig,” Marc Essig, an Asheville-based historian who was drawn into pig studies after learning about the tens of thousands of hogs driven down Western North Carolina turnpikes in the 19th century, outlines how pork has shaped culture. His story starts about 11,000 years ago in modern-day Turkey, where wild boars were drawn to human garbage heaps.

From early on, pigs weren’t popular. “The people of the Near East practiced many different religions, but all agreed pigs were unclean,” Essig writes. The problem was pigs ate excrement and carrion (in the much cleaner milieu of ancient Rome, pork commonly turned up on tables.) In Medieval Europe, they also acquired a reputation for eating children, and were sometimes tried for their crimes.

Still, Westerners didn’t give up on pigs. They brought them to the New World, and came to rely deeply on them for meat and fat. Essig quotes from an 1860 issue of Godey’s Lady’s Book: “The United States of America might properly be called the great Hog-eating Confederacy, or the Republic of Porkdom.” Yet most eaters aspired to beef. Even the 1950s introduction of modern bacon, uniformly sliced and shielded by clear plastic, couldn’t sway a flush nation into shifting its meat preferences. In 1953, per capita beef consumption surpassed pork consumption for the first time.

Pork consumption kept dropping until the 1980s, when it reached a level of about 50 pounds per person. And then it flat lined. Pork producers can’t get the figure to budge, market researcher Susan Schwallie of the NPD Group told the Camp Bacon crowd. “Chicken has been growing like crazy,” she said.

Americans aren’t exactly abstaining from pork, though. Fifty pounds of pork per year translates to 11/3 hot dogs each day. In his new book, “Pig Tales: An Omnivore’s Quest for Sustainable Meat,” Barry Estabrook details the industry surrounding the pigs who give their lives for those franks and other dishes.

“No facet of modern food production does as much harm to the environment, the animals it raises, and the people it employs as the pork industry,” Estabrook writes in the introduction to his lively chronicle of North Carolinians choked by fumes from nearby hog farms; factory inspectors forced to ignore blatant animal abuse, including the scalding and slaughter of conscious half-stunned pigs; and packinghouse workers, assigned to dangerously fast butcher lines and denied bathroom breaks.

“Pig Tales” is far more readable than it sounds: It brims with the warmth that Estabrook feels for his subjects, and isn’t tainted by the sort of self-seriousness that might keep an author from finding the humor in stripping down with a commercial pig farmer (for sanitary reasons, of course.) And its conclusion is likely to be welcomed by bacon acolytes: “My partner and I still eat bacon,” Estabrook writes. “We’re just a lot more choosy about where we get it.”

At Camp Bacon, attendees were exposed to a range of better bacons, from Italian imports to Chicago artisan products to the output of meat lockers in Iowa, a state where hogs outnumber people by 17 million head. Leo Landis, curator of the State Historical Museum of Iowa, has visited 51 of the small-scale butcher shops, which once existed in every Iowan community.

Toward the end of the presentation, Landis issued a warning that could resonate beyond the confines of the camp: “Beware the mediocre belly.”