|Ari Weinzweig, author of Zingerman's Guide to Better Bacon, admits there's always more to learn about bacon.|
Ask someone to talk about their favorite wine and you’ll hear about where the wine is from, how it’s aged and how it complements particular foods. Similar responses are heard when asked about cheese. Cheese-lovers will go on about aging, ingredients and the cheese-making process when talking about their favorite varieties. But when it comes to bacon, the conversation doesn’t usually go any deeper than, “I love bacon!”
Ari Weinzweig, co-founder of Zingerman’s Delicatessen in Ann Arbor, Mich., bacon-lover and local bacon afficionado, 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 palates.”
Weinzweig’s reputation as a bacon guru is known all over 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. “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, stories of the evolution of bacon and its different uses throughout history, a glossary of commonly misunderstood bacon terms and of course, a variety of bacon recipes.
Weinzweig explains the book is not a handbook for how to cure bacon – rather it’s a look into the history of the popular food and a celebration of bacon-makers. A description of the book reads, “You’ll learn about how bacon was used to promote matrimonial harmony in medieval England, and you’ll meet Andre Williams, one of the country’s most colorful blues singers and a big bacon-lover. You’ll also meet celebrated bacon-makers from Wisconsin to Kentucky to Connecticut and learn not only what makes their bacons so full of flavor, but also, just as importantly, what makes one bacon different from the next.”
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.
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 hogs that are able to wander more freely produce better-tasting meat.
|"[Bacon] was delicious in 1880 and it’s still delicious now.” — Ari Weinzweig|
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 10 to 12 different varieties of bacon.
Even though Weinzweig acknowledges that bacon’s trendy popularity today doesn’t hurt the store’s bacon sales, 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.”
For bacon fanatics who want to enjoy bacon year-round, Zingerman’s Mail Order business offers a “Bacon of the Month” Club. Customers can choose from the three-month, six-month or year-long option, all of which deliver 12 to 16 oz. of artisan bacon, bacon stories, histories and recipes all to the recipient’s door.
Some bacon selections include Applewood Smoked Bacon, Hickory Smoked Duroc Bacon, Kentucky Dry Cured Bacon, Spencer’s Irish-Style Back Bacon and Balinese Long Pepper Bacon. These and many other cuts and styles of bacon can also be shipped around the country in individual orders without enrolling in the monthly club.
In yet another effort to share his love of bacon with other fans, 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 bacon. 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.”
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.
Last year’s camp featured a variety of discussions, tastings and presentations. Susan Schwallie, from the Chicago-based consumer market research firm The NPD Group, provided statistics about food and bacon consumption in the US. Ham and bacon company owners from Wisconsin, Kentucky and Texas talked about the changing environments for their family-owned businesses. There were even presentations about making bacon fat soap from a local chemistry teacher, and bacon bitters cocktails served up by New York-based Hella Bitters.
Next year’s Camp Bacon, to be held June 4-7, 2015, promises more of the same for bacon connoisseurs.