I love bacon as much as anyone. I adore crispy rashers for breakfast, on my burger, or in a BLT, and I consider bacon grease a first-rate cooking fat. What’s more, I find bacon interesting symbolically. Between the sinfully delicious taste, the artery-clogging cholesterol, and the religious prohibitions, there’s all manner of lines to be drawn, be they to sex, vice, or death, when considering pork.
However, I do object to bacon as catchphrase, as fad, as arena for testosterone-fueled competition. Bacon has become extremely trendy in the past few years. There is a multiplicity of blogs devoted to bacon—the author of Bacon, A Love Story, Heather Lauer, writes one of them: BaconUnwrapped.com. There are bacon fan pages on Facebook, and my Twitter feed seems at times merely a rolling flood of bacon exclamations, “twecipes” for bacon candy and bacon cocktails, shills for bacon Band-Aids and bacon wallets, until I want to scream, “Yes! Bacon tastes good! Get over it!”
Googling your favorite food, then throwing the links onto paper, does not a book make, at least to this cranky old lady’s mind.
I’ve also grown exceedingly dubious of single-subject books on food—cod, salt, corn, potatoes, etc…. In the hands of a thoughtful writer and skilled researcher, you can learn much by looking at history and human nature through the prism of one particular foodstuff. But more often, this has become one of those gimmicks that for one reason or another seem to sell books. And Googling your favorite food, then throwing the links onto paper, does not a book make, at least to this cranky old lady’s mind.
So, in short, I was skeptical when I picked up Bacon, A Love Story. Still, Lauer, a self-professed “lifelong bacon enthusiast,” started off decently enough. Her first chapter, “On the Eighth Day, God Created Bacon,” covers the history of hog domestication and the development of the process of curing and smoking pork belly from ancient China to the European Middle Ages to early America. The overly chipper and insufficiently witty tone can be overlooked when you’re discovering that, for instance, France passed laws against urban pig-raising in 1131 when Prince Philip, son of Louis VI, “was killed when his horse threw him after being startled by a stray pig.” Theories on the origins of phrases such as “bringing home the bacon” and “chew the fat”—which Cockney slang shortened to “chat”—kept me reading happily enough, until the historical timeline reached the present day. This is where I began to feel uncomfortable.
For people who write and think seriously about food, the ethics, health concerns, and environmental issues surrounding where our meat comes from has become an increasingly fraught issue in the last few years. In fact, the current bacon mania sweeping a nation of foodies is in large part an offshoot of this. The availability of local, heritage pork raised ethically by small farmers is part of what has gotten people interested in making their own bacon at home, for instance. So it’s odd that Ms. Lauer has no particular concerns about how her pork is raised. In fact, she seems to have no point of view that she’s trying to get across at all, beyond that bacon is the “Best Meat Ever.” All bacon, in her eyes, whether produced through the obsessive devotion of individuals or the industrial processes employed by Oscar Meyer or Hormel, is made the same, blissfully simple way—“find some good pork bellies, cure and smoke them with love, and the result will always be a happy human belly.” Mentioning in passing that genetic modification of hog breeds has resulted in “superpigs” that cannot live outdoors, or that laws are being considered that would outlaw crating pigs, she expresses neither approval nor disapproval, merely reminding her readers to keep in mind the price of pork when they enter the voting booth. The book reads less like a passionate paean to a favorite food, and more like a press release for the National Pork Board.
I could forgive Ms. Lauer’s disinterest in the politics of meat, but I can’t forgive the prose. For any blogger-turned-author, myself included, tone is tricky, and unfortunately Lauer hasn’t made the transition gracefully. She is too fond of corny jokes, capital letters, and exclamation marks—the phrases “Best Meat Ever” and “Bacon Nation” pop up in nearly every paragraph, many of which conclude with declamatory sentences such as, “Just like humans, when bacon has had a chance to ‘chill out,’ it’s much easier to work with!”
The recipes rounding out Bacon are more successful—gleaned from pig-mad chefs and cooks around the country, they are mostly unsurprising but appetizing, sometimes with small twists, like a BLT with caramelized bacon. By the time I got to the recipe for bacon jalapeno pizza—a personal favorite of mine—I was almost ready to forgive Ms. Lauer. If only she’d stopped hammering the “Best Meat Ever” line until I was literally beating my head against a wall, perhaps I would have.
Yes! Bacon tastes good! Get over it!
Julie Powell is the author of the bestselling book Julie & Julia, soon to be a major motion picture starring Meryl Streep and Amy Adams. Her next book, Cleaving: A Story of Marriage, Meat and Obsession comes out in December.