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.

1 comment:

Dan said...

Superb pig riding picture, Jim. I found your blog while researching that very subject for Porkopolis.org. My post of May 6th, 2011 there covers saddled pigs. Also good to find someone quoting Towns and Wentworth - Pigs: From Cave to Corn Belt is such a terrific book.