Everyone loves bacon. But if you ask someone why, they likely can’t explain it.
Ari Weinzweig, co-founder of Zingerman’s Delicatessen in Ann Arbor, Mich., bacon-lover and local bacon aficionado, isn’t satisfied with that response.
“I hear all these people talk about how much they love bacon but they don’t talk about it the way people talk about cheese,” Weinzweig explains. “With cheese, they talk about where it’s from, the region, what makes one cheese better than the other, but with bacon, people just love bacon – there has to be more to it than that.
“Bacon, in many ways, is like wine and cheese,” he says. “There are different bacons for different uses, for different palettes.”
Weinzweig’s reputation as a bacon guru is known throughout Ann Arbor and among the growing industry of artisan bacon producers. “I know a little bit about bacon, but there’s always more to learn,” he admits.
In fact, because there’s so much more to bacon than the run-of-the-mill bacon-lover would ever know, Weinzweig decided to write a book about it. Published in 2009, “Zingerman’s Guide to Better Bacon – Stories of Pork Bellies, Hush Puppies, Rock ’n’ Roll Music and Bacon Fat Mayonnaise” includes a who’s-who of Weinzweig’s favorite bacon curers in the US, stories of the evolution of bacon and its different uses throughout history, a glossary of commonly misunderstood bacon terms (what’s a rasher, pancetta, salume?) and of course, a variety of bacon recipes.
When describing his book and the reasons behind writing it, Weinzweig says, “Bacon is so integral to the culinary history of this country. The roots are so deep in our cooking, I think of it as the olive oil of North America.”
What makes one type of bacon different or better than another? The answer is multi-tiered, Weinzweig explains.
|Ari Weinzweig, author, food historian|
First, the breed of hog plays an important role. “Years ago, hogs had more fat on them, which meant more marbling,” he says. “But then we started making hogs leaner – that was a bad idea. The fat is where the flavor is.” Weinzweig also believes free-range hogs produce better-tasting meat.
Another factor that makes bacons differ is the cut. Traditionally, bacon in the US is cut from the belly; Canadian and English bacon is cut from the loin. One isn’t better than the other, Weinzweig explains, it’s just another thing that makes one type of bacon taste different than another.
Next, there’s curing. Bacon can go through a dry- or wet-curing process. Wet curing uses a brine solution of water, salt, spices and sometimes sugar to cure the bacon, while the dry process uses packed salt, spices and sugar for one to four weeks to cure the bacon and infuse it with flavor.
A final point of differentiation when it comes to bacon is whether or not it’s smoked – he reminds customers that not all bacon is smoked. The type of wood it’s smoked in and the length of time it’s smoked also affects the flavor.
At any given time, Zingerman’s offers as many as 12 varieties of bacon.
Even though Weinzweig acknowledges bacon’s trendy popularity today, he says that’s not why they carry such a large variety. “Our focus has always been on traditional food, and bacon is just one of them,” Weinzweig explains. “We’re happy to ride the trend wave, but bacon’s been around forever – it’s traditional – that’s why we carry it. It was delicious in 1880 and it’s still delicious now.”
In yet another effort to share his love of bacon with other fans around the country, Weinzweig and the Zingerman’s Deli crew started Camp Bacon in 2010. The camp brings together bacon-lovers, bacon-makers, cooks, curers and simply anyone who likes to learn, eat and enjoy cured and smoked pork belly.
The camp is also a fundraiser for Southern Foodways Alliance, a non-profit organization that documents, studies and celebrates the diverse food cultures of the American South by staging symposia, producing documentary films, collecting oral histories, sponsoring scholarships, mentoring students and publishing writing.
Camp Bacon is four days of all things bacon – eating, learning, listening, tasting and talking. It is described as, “a pork-centric party that features everything from poetry to pigs.”
Next year’s Camp Bacon, to be held June 1-5, promises more of the same for bacon connoisseurs.