During the summer of 2008, as I was writing Bacon: A Love Story
, I took a cross country trip to discover the Bacon Nation. I had learned a lot about bacon over years because of my blog, BaconUnwrapped.com
, but in order to have a full understanding of the Best Meat Ever, I felt like I needed to spend some quality time with the people who actually make the bacon we all enjoy (and naturally, that would mean tasting a lot of bacon too...don't you feel sorry for me?).
I didn't know what to expect on my Bacon Tour of America — I randomly selected a few producers I was familiar with, loaded up the car, and headed west out of Washington, D.C. (where I was living at the time).
My first few days were spent in Kentucky. This area of the country has a long tradition of curing hams and bacon. A lot of the producers credit the mild temperatures and humidity as being the reason why Kentucky is an ideal place to cure pork products, particularly before modern-day refrigeration was invented. Others think there is just something "magical" in the air. Either way, as technology has evolved over the years, a lot of those producers have turned their expertise into larger operations that sell bacon to people from all over the United States. But while the operations have grown, the underlying concepts that make for good bacon are still a guiding force.
Most consumers get their bacon today by walking into a supermarket and tossing a brand of commercial bacon, such as Hormel or Oscar Mayer, into their shopping cart without putting an ounce of thought into where that bacon came from. But even though the art of makin' bacon has evolved over time, there are a lot of hard-working, caring people who put love into making that bacon product we thankfully all have instant access to. And increasingly there are more and more artisinal and locally produced bacon options available to consumers.
I started my bacon tour in Kentucky by visiting a couple of small producers — all of whom I profile in my book. There is the Scott Family, who live on a farm many miles from anything that could be categorized as a "city," and they make their bacon in a brick outbuilding surrounded by beautiful green rolling hills and pastures. Then there's Nancy Newsom Mahaffey — "The Ham Lady" — whose hams and bacon are used by many high-profile chefs, including Bobby Flay, but you'd never know by taking a tour of the small brick building in the backyard of her parents' house where her family has been curing pork products for several decades.
Moving into Missouri, I visited Swiss Meats, which I guess you could consider to be a "medium-sized" producer. Like many makers of bacon, their operation started out a few decades ago as a butcher of animals from farms in the surrounding area. Eventually, those farms stopped raising their own animals, and Swiss Meats was the source of fresh meat for many local families. Thanks to the quality of their products, and the availability of mail and internet order options, their business has boomed. Swiss Meats' bacon is one of my personal favorites.
Even further down the road in Missouri is Burgers' Smokehouse. Located a few miles outside the small town of California, Missouri, you would never guess this is one of the country's premiere producers of country-style hams and bacon. Their operation is state of the art and currently produces 750,000 hams, bacon, sausage and a dozen other specialty meats per year.
While most people will continue to buy their bacon off-the-shelf at the grocery story, there is an increasing interest in artisanal and local producers who are creating some really delicious products. There is a good chance that a locally produced bacon is sold behind the butcher counter at your grocery store — check it out next time you're stocking up. I'm willing to bet you'll think twice about returning to that pre-packaged stuff.