Savory strips

by Lawrence Aylward
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Father's Country Hams offers an array of flavored bacons.
Father's Country Hams offers an array of flavored bacons.

As its name suggests, Father’s Country Hams made a name for itself by processing and selling country hams. But the small, family-owned business in Bremen, Ky., has also gained a fine reputation for its flavored bacon.

Funny thing, the impetus for the company’s flavored bacon line occurred in 2000 when Charles Gatton Jr., owner of Father’s Country Hams, was celebrating the grand champion award for his country ham at the National Meat Association Ham Show in Lancaster, Pa. At that show, a processor from another state had entered his cinnamon-flavored bacon in a competition, which caught Gatton’s attention. Always up for a new processing challenge, Gatton decided to try his hand at flavored bacon.

“I went home and developed pepper-flavored bacon and cinnamon sugar-flavored bacon,” Gatton says.
Today, Father’s Country Hams offers an array of flavored bacons, including smoked spice rum, bourbon, bourbon vanilla, honey-glazed, apple cinnamon, Cajun, honey barbecue, maple, jalapeno and even summer tomato.

When Gatton’s father, Charles Sr., began the business in the 1950s, Father’s Country Hams made and sold only about 4,000 lbs. of bacon a year. Today, the company processes and sells about 100,000 lbs. annually, with flavored bacon accounting for much of the business. The company’s bacon has garnered much mainstream media attention. In 2001, Esquire magazine honored Father’s Country Hams with having the Best Bacon in America.

Between 2004 and 2008, Gatton and his wife made several appearances on the Home Shopping Network, selling samplers of cinnamon sugar, hickory and pepper bacon. During the broadcast of the first show they appeared on, they sold 6,000 lbs., a sell-out.

Hand-crafted

Gatton trims the pork bellies to his own specifications. He has tried to outsource trimming, but couldn’t find anyone to do it the way he wanted.

Gatton says the dry-curing process for the pork bellies is older than the state of Kentucky. Early settlers, who did not have refrigeration or other means of preserving food, brought the process to the region.

The base ingredients of the cure are salt, brown and white sugar and sodium nitrite. Gatton says the two sugars together add more flavor.

The bellies cure in a cooler for 10 days at 37˚F to 39˚F. From the cooler, they are washed and hung in the smokehouse for drying and smoking.

“We smoke them for 96 hours with real hickory sawdust,” Gatton says.

The bacon is then sliced using a 180 Berkel conveyor bacon slicer, the only automated equipment in the plant.

Gatton works with a flavor company to develop the dry rubs for the flavors, but the rubs are his own secret creations.

“After we slice the bacon, we hand rub each piece of bacon with the dry rub. It goes on dry,” he explains. “When we vacuum seal the packages, the rubs continue to penetrate the meat.”

The bourbon-flavored bacons feature authentic Kentucky bourbon. The maple-flavored bacon, one of Father’s Country Hams most popular items, features real maple sugar from a Vermont company.
“It tastes like you poured maple syrup over the bacon,” Gatton says.

The honey glazed-flavored bacon features honey made from the family’s farm. The summer tomato-flavored bacon features a rub that is so tasty it can be eaten by itself.

“That bacon tastes like it has fresh tomatoes on it,” Gatton says.

There is only one flavor that Gatton couldn’t quite perfect: chocolate-flavored bacon.

“Chocolate is bitter. I had to add so much sugar to the rub to not make it bitter that the bacon would burn,” he says.

Still, Father’s Country Hams offers chocolate indulgence bacon, which features chocolate and amaretto flavors.

“It’s really good, but people aren’t quite sure about it,” Gatton says.

Price is right

Gatton tries to keep prices low on the flavored bacon. For instance, four packs cost only $38. The margin is about 75 cents per package.

“It helps us sell more volume of bacon,” he says of the low prices, noting that most all sales occur through the company’s website, www.fatherscountryhams.com, and its on-site retail story. “We would rather have repeat business year-round than somebody buying once a year.”

Gatton says he can create 500 packages a day of flavored bacon. He hand coats each bacon strip and loads them into pouches, which are vacuum packaged by one of his employees.

Gatton, 63, says the flavored bacon has been a creative outlet for him. “I don’t have any hobbies so my hobby is creating unique foods,” he adds.

He says that making flavored bacon by hand is a lost art. “It’s a living tribute to my father,” he says of Charles Sr., who died in 2000.

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