Bacon, America's Olive Oil

The Ozarks Herbalist column for
The Ozarks Mountaineer magazine
Jim Long, April 2011
Jim, riding a pet pig.

Bacon, the American Olive Oil

Bacon is a truly American food. While cured pork is eaten in other parts of the world, it is an American innovation that cures and smokes the bacon in the way we know it today.

The likely first introduction of pigs to the Americas dates to the Hernando de Soto expedition which arrived in Florida in 1539, and his ship records show pigs as part of the cargo. Bacon and ham, along with peanuts and tobacco were being exported back to England as early as about 1640.

It wasn’t long before tame hogs were escaping into the wild. The Foxfire books list wild boar hunting as a common rural activity as late as the 1960s. As the feral hogs spread, they acquired regional names. Edward Norris Wentworth, in his book, Pigs from Cave to Corn Belt, list these regional names: bristle bearer, wood wanderer, mountain liver, alligator, landpike, stump rooter and razorback, and hunting them in most Southern states has a long and proud tradition.

I met a man in Alabama a few years back whose hobby was hunting wild pigs using an atlatl, that ancient spear-throwing weapon used in many parts of the world in prehistory. Today we know that razorbacks or wild pigs are so prevalent in the Ozarks and south that the Conservation Department encourages hunting the critters the year around, and without limits.

During the War of 1812, there was a 21-year old young man named Samuel Wilson, from New Hampshire, who was the main pork packer for the army. The story goes that he was very popular with the troops because of his tireless work in providing them with good provisions and an always upbeat personality. Barrels of pork that were shipped to his receiving center were labeled, “to U.S.” Wilson, standing for “Uncle Sam Wilson.” The Uncle Sam name stuck and the legendary character of Uncle Sam was born, with a firm connection between army provisions and bacon.

It’s been said that the hardest thing for a vegetarian to resist is bacon. I learned back in the 1970s when a lot of my friends were vegetarian, not to fry bacon when any of them were around, because more than once, I caused someone to backslide into the world of eating meat with a simple slice of bacon.

There are two kinds of bacon in the U.S., wet-cured and dry-cured. The wet cure method is done by putting the slabs of bacon in a brine containing salt and seasonings for several days, then hanging the slabs to drain and dry, and then smoking them. Smoking over slow hardwood embers is the typical smoking method.

Dry curing is what farmers in the Ozarks typically did. My grandfather used a mixture of salt and seasonings and as soon as the bacon was cut from the freshly-butchered hog, the seasonings would be rubbed into the slab of bacon where it would lay in the smokehouse to drain and absorb the curing mixture. The bacon slab would then be hung up from the rafters where it would begin to dry. The slabs would have to be rubbed with more mixture several more times during the drying and curing process. Once the slabs of bacon quit draining and began to dry, a whitish covering called, “protein” would form on the outside and it was  was a protective layer that protected the meat.

Typically now, when a packaging company dry cures bacon, it is also slow-smoked over hickory, maple or apple wood and kept at a constant temperature to age before being sold. A typical dry-cure seasoning includes salt and sugar, with twice as much salt as sugar (either white sugar or brown sugar), along with salt peter (saltpetre refers to: Potassium nitrate, or the mineral niter, the critical oxidizing component of gunpowder, and a food preservative ), and black pepper. Some recipes call for liquid or powdered smoke seasoning, as well. The bacon is rubbed about every day for a couple of weeks with more seasoning.

Bacon in America is cured, often smoked pork belly, while British bacon is made from the back, rather than the belly, cured in a brine but not smoked. Canadian Peameal Bacon is a pork loin cured in wet brine and then rolled in cornmeal and sold raw, but never smoked.

Fatback is the strip of fat from the top of the hog’s back, above the loin and commonly used in early American cooking. Green bacon is the British term for cured but unsmoked bacon, while guanciale is an Italian-style pork jowl, dry cured and unsmoked.

Irish bacon is similar to British bacon but generally used in boiled dishes. Pancetta is a dry-cured, unsmoked Italian bacon made from pork belly, but doesn’t taste like American bacon due to the different seasonings used.

It’s fallen out of fashion in today’s health-conscious world, to fry bacon and save the bacon grease. Bacon grease was long considered the equivalent of olive oil, in our country as it was more commonly used. We’ve replaced it with vegetable oils, either liquid or solid. However, you can’t make a good wilted lettuce salad with vegetable oil, no matter how hard you try. Here’s our family’s recipe (and probably yours, too), unchanged in many generations.

Wilted Lettuce Salad

Gather and clean a big bowl full of leaf lettuce. Black Seeded Simpson was my family’s favorite lettuce variety, but any spring leaf lettuce will work. Set it aside (or refrigerate) until a few minutes before you are ready to serve dinner.

About 5-7 minutes before serving time, fry 3 pieces of your favorite bacon until crisp in an iron skillet. Remove the bacon and drain. Keep low heat on under the skillet and add 1/4 cup apple cider vinegar and 2 tabslespoons sugar to the bacon grease, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Salt to taste. Finely chop a spring green onion into the hot dressing and crumble the 3 slices of crisp bacon.

Drizzle the hot bacon dressing over the bowl of lettuce, tossing to make sure the dressing is well mixed. The lettuce will wilt a bit. Serve immediately.

No matter how many artificial soy-based bacons come onto the market, no matter the bacon flavorings or bacon substitutes, nothing tastes the same as good old American bacon.


Farmers Markets in the Ozarks


Ozarks Gardening, April 14, 2011

Jim Long

Farmer’s Markets

The popularity of shopping locally for local produce has increased in popularity in recent years. This year, with big increases in  prices of food at the grocery store, will only increase the demand for locally grown vegetables and fruit. Not only do you get the freshest produce at a farmer’s market (picked just hours before you purchase it) but you support the local economy, as well. Isn’t it better to see your grocery money go to the farmer down the road, than to support large corporations in Peru, China or Central America?

Look at www.fruitstands.com/states/missouri for a complete listing in MO (although the website appears to need corrections and updates). The AR Dept. of Ag. has a website, “ArkansasGrown.org” but it’s also not up to date and somewhat hard to use. Here are some farmers markets around the area, with contact information (from those 2 websites) in case you want to sell your produce, or simply want to shop for good food. Most markets require a weekly or seasonal fee to sell, and you need to apply for booth space if you are a grower.
Homemade Goats Milk Soap

Springfield, MO Farmer’s Market is celebrating it’s 30th anniversary this year. You’ll find it on the corner of Glenstone and Battlefield, open Tues., Thurs. and Sat. (417) 887-4156. There’s also a market on Commercial St. in Springfield, open Sun., Wed. and Sat. 417-887-4156.

Ava, MO has a remarkably large market on the square on Saturdays and it’s a busy place for shoppers. Contact: Mary Bell (417) 796-2449.

Berryville, AR, Tues. 3-6 p.m. and Sat. mornings. Contact Linda Jones, linda_g92@yahoo.com. Eureka Springs, AR market is Tues. and Thurs. mornings; contact Katie Ambach; kate.ambach@gmail.com and www.carrollcountyfresh.org.
Fresh picked herbs and greens at good prices.

Hermann, MO Farmers Market is open Wed. & Sat. mornings in the First Bank Parking lot; contact  Bob Kirchhofer, 573-486-2121. Kennett, MO’s Food Fair Market is open on Sat. until noon; contact Sylvas Pendleton (573) 888-9644.
This lady makes the BEST pepper jelly, for the Farmers Market in Fayetteville, AR. I wish I'd bought more than one jar.

Kimberling City’s market is on Friday mornings and the contact there is Joann Conner, 417-779-5725. The Lebanon Farmers Market of Laclede County (MO) is open May 20 thru Oct. 13 every Sat. morning, held at the Christian Life Fellowship Church. Contact person there is Judy Lambeth (573)765-3874.
Fun with Food is a project organized by the Iowa Extension Service and area youth.

Willow Springs, MO market opens May 20 on 812 E. Main; contact Elizabeth Boyle, 417-469-2454.
This enterprising young entrepreneur was making water yo-yos, demonstrating and selling them at the market.

An innovative farmers new market opens May 14 in Reeds Spring, MO and is open from 4 to 8 p.m. every Saturday. Evening farmers markets are very popular in many states, making it easy for families to shop. This market is held on the side of the main street through town with open air booth space for fresh produce and plant vendors, as well as space for musicians to play music, with old-time movies some evenings. For vendor information contact Flavie Mirat at Reeds Spring Pizza Co., 417-272-3507.

If you want the freshest produce, locally grown, you can’t beat shopping at your local farmers market. For more information, do a Google search for your town.  You can what’s happening in my garden this week on my garden blog: jimlongsgarden.blogspot.com. Happy gardening!