“Truth be told, bacon is far more versatile than most of us realize.”
-Heather Lauer, Bacon: A Love Story
Just let me briefly set the scene for you. East on McGuire you’ve got these industrial hangars which sit like the silhouettes of giant well-made turds against the sky’s SeaWorld blue, bland and very spooky, and hyphened by asphalt. The grass in front of the hangars meanwhile invites the gaze: it speaks some serious green; the landscaping’s tight and trimmed and pleasantly symmetric, and also it’s literally weedless on close inspection.
Further east’s the Orlando Executive Airport, sandwiched between Lake Underhill and Lake Barton, two very big bowls of water. The other way across Primrose on Robinson, you’ll find some bars and a TG Lee “dairy” which has a block to itself and which, with smokestacks, looks a lot more like a processing plant. The area is referred to as The Milk District and is considered a hip scene by those in the know—the website labels it the “alternative” to downtown Orlando, and it’s been given a friendly if cursory shout-out in the Orlando Weekly, a local alt-newspaper—and is notable primarily for what’s called Tasty Tuesdays, a weekly gathering of food trucks in a semi-formal festival.
There are, too, lots of unmarked or abandoned-looking buildings in the area.
In sum: Festival Park is in a weird spot, a no-man’s land in terms of the city’s attractions, which makes it the ideal place to hold the first annual Festival of Bacon, for reasons discussed a little bit later.
At the moment we’re near the stage in the park’s only shaded corner, among a small collection of people—mostly these are compact nuclear families, i.e. Small Child(ren) and Dad and Mom, who’ve spread blankets out on the grass and keep cheap beer in the back pouches of strollers. We’re listening to a folk/hipster singer-songwriter work through a bluegrassy number that sounds—your correspondent being frankly not the finest judge of such things—actually pretty good. On finishing with a dramatic strum of his acoustic guitar, the singer-songwriter looks serenely out upon the crowd and muses for a while about the actor Kevin Bacon, and about The Bacon Brothers, the folk rock band Bacon formed with his brother in 1995, and shoot, what a bummer that the Festival had not been able to procure them as an act, seeing as how wonderfully theme-appropriate such a move would’ve been—or actually (leaning in to the mic here, conspiratorially, and you can see certain members of the audience lean forward, like totally enchanted), he doesn’t know if they’d even reached out to them or what, the takeaway of this whole clunky digression being that hell, we’re stuck with him, with the folk/hipster singer-songwriter, which this digression is pretty clearly a passive-aggressive ploy for applause and audience engagement, much the way somebody will compliment you hoping you return the favor.
The audience complies enthusiastically, to the gist of, Rock On, Bro!
And meanwhile, the technician in the sound booth fiddles with nobs. It’s undiscernible whether there is pattern/purpose to such fiddling, or whether (and this might be me, projecting) such fiddling is self-conscious, i.e. an awareness, on the technician’s part, of somebody—your correspondent! who’s sort of creepily looking over his shoulder at this point!—watching.
Months earlier I’d pitched the Festival to a few prominent magazines as a funky and possibly illuminating slice of Americana. Like Taylor Swift, bacon seemed emblematic of some larger cultural pattern, something which lots of people seem to point at and snap Instagrams of and Share or Tweet about with great frequency. In other words, bacon was Trending, and therefore maybe quintessentially American. A preliminary late-night Googling session turned up all sorts of bacon-flavored products: breath mints and shaving cream, toothpaste, lip balm, candy and vodka. Lube. Whether or not this stuff actually smelled or tasted like bacon seemed beside the point: it was clear that somewhere down the line bacon had transcended purely gastronomic considerations and become an idea, one to which many people sort of rabidly subscribe:
Heather Lauer, author of Bacon: A Love Story (which is often wincingly what the title claims it to be): “Bacon is the King of Pork. Bacon is The Best Meat Ever.”
Sarah Katherine Lewis, author of Sex and Bacon: “Bacon is truly the Wonder Food.”
The comedian Jim Gaffigan: “The only bad part about bacon is it makes you thirsty…for more bacon. I never feel like I get enough bacon. At breakfast it’s like they’re rationing it. (officious voice) ‘Here’s your two strips of bacon.’ (high-pitched) I want more!”
And so on. To the prominent magazines I’d proposed to thoroughly demystify this phenomenon: No Stones Left Unturned, The Truth, The Whole, Nothing But, etc.
To teach us, as the pitch went, something about ourselves.
Turns out the meat we mean when we say bacon, which comes from pork belly and’s known as side or streaky bacon in the States and pancetta in Italy, where it’s (most often) rolled up into cubes and used as a cooking ingredient, is just one of a variety of types. Like most things bacon turns out to be more complicated, when looked at closely. The trick being it’s not so much a thing as a concept, a collection of things, organized a couple of ways.
What makes bacon itself and not pork is that it’s cured. Meaning: the meat is preserved. This is done either by soaking it in brine or dry-packing it; either way, the meat’s saturated in dubious-sounding preservatives like sodium and potassium nitrite (what turns the meat that alluring shade of pink), sodium ascorbate, erythorbate, and sodium polyphosphates. These are all forms of salt, more or less.
Which part of the pig that’s cured determines how the bacon is labeled. Here’s where we get into organizing principles. Bacon is thought of primarily in terms of anatomy, through what’s called “cuts”: there’s the previously mentioned side or streaky bacon, cut from pork belly, and middle bacon, cut from the eye of the loin, and back or Canadian bacon, cut from loin itself. There’s cottage bacon, cut from shoulder, jowl bacon, cut and cured from pig cheeks, and slab bacon, cut from belly and fatback. And too there’s something called bacon joints: collar bacon, cut from the pig’s back near the head, hock, taken from the ankle joint, gammon, from the hind leg, and picnic bacon, cut from the shoulder beneath the blade.
Bacon is also categorized according to where in the world it’s being consumed. Meaning, geography is the sub- or secondary organizing principle: in the States, we’ll mostly eat streaky bacon but, if feeling exotic, will go for Canadian bacon. Same deal in Canada. In the UK bacon is termed rashers and refers to the back/Canadian cut, although they’ll sometimes go for streaky bacon, too.
The geographical principle is not as well defined, due likely to a whole host of variables–changing tastes, distribution costs, industry regulations, world events, etc. For the most part, these variables can be grouped into a larger category: Money. Like take for example the sale, for $4.7 billion, of Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest pork producer, to Chinese-owned Shuanghui International in September 2013. The pig has always been significant in Chinese culture—the Chinese character for “home” is represented by a pig under a roof—but rising incomes have led in recent years to more demands for pork—or demands for more pork—in a country where the average person already eats eighty-plus pounds of it yearly (forty lbs. more than the average American).
Or how about this: according to the National Pork Board, the economic “downturn” in 2008, combined with the outbreak of the H1N1 flu virus (aka swine flu) caused production levels to decline—and so in turn, “hog prices were driven to new all-time highs in order to cover record-high production costs.”
Stuff like this keeps the geographic principle in perpetual flux, which is, it seems like, the defining characteristic of it.
There’s also what let’s call problematic bacon, or bacon that doesn’t fit into the categories the organizing principles provide. Things like turkey bacon, beef bacon, veggie bacon, meatless Canadian bacon, and—most mystifying—what’s termed “uncured” bacon. The existence of such products reminds us how inadequate categories can be, and how expansive or elastic definitions need to be, in a world that’s big and shifty and naturally opposed to revealing structure.
In their haste to Have Fun And Eat Bacon! festival attendees park just about everywhere: in lots, sure, but also on grassy areas and curbs, on sidewalks, along streets; they double- and triple-park; they call out impatiently, a little rudely, to pedestrians who might, they hope, be leaving; they circle and circle the block; they tail and honk at people and blast music and, when they do find a spot, they Celebrate! Yeah! High-Five!
Neglected to mention: I am at this point hung over, and sweating like a—well, I’d sweat a lot on the drive over (the Mazda’s A/C having crapped out, years ago).
We make our way across the street, driven along within a coffle of strollers and demigodish couples with jealousy-inducing tans/posture/teeth and groups of So Psyched, Bro hipster frat boys and sweetly puzzled foreign tourists with fanny packs and awed expressions. Seems a good time to mention that, according to the official Festival of Bacon website, there are 9,000 of us here today, penned into the equivalent of about two football fields. And also: huge crowds of people like this make me nervous, a little bit.
Which I mention just so you’re aware that your devoted correspondent braves fears and anxieties in order to, you know, eat some bacon.
On purchasing our tickets, we just mosey. To our right, a woman wearing a neon green fanny pack is attempting, desperately, to offload her Bacon Bucks for some kind of compensation while a family ahead of her gives theirs away. Two teenaged girls dressed as Bacon and Eggs hold hands and are laughing it looks like nervously at an older dude saying something to them. In the distance, a mechanical bull shuck-and-jives, eliciting squeals from its female rider, and just beyond, an imposing and deeply blue truck-like thing with huge Red Bull logo on the side pours Top Forty music into the park’s listening space, dueling the live country blasted from the stage on the other side. Next to Red Bull, a vast impenetrable eating tent, whose acoustics are amplified and adds to the sense that you’re basically inside one big staticky radio caught between stations. Festival Way, a little clogged artery of a road, cuts the park in half, approximately. On it sits four or five food trucks. At the back of a long line for Candied Bacon Ice Cream, there’s a motley gang of little kids screaming and shoving each other while, at its nucleus, a weary mom grips a stroller for support.
And again there are people everywhere. Plus the sunlight is so noxiously bright it glints off cotton T-shirts.
We veer left and loop clockwise around the park, just looking. Booths line the edges, and booths pepper the vast interior space. All of which set up beneath white or blue awning, peddling some truly weird shit considering the context, electronic cigarettes, and O2 (literally someone is here selling air to breathe), and handcrafted wooden sunglasses. One of the first booths we come across, for Central Florida Ski & Powersports, seems to be selling nothing but two blond girls in bikinis, pretending (very apathetically) to frolic in a colorful kiddie pool. In the background sits a green Jeep-like vehicle. They draw quite the crowd.
We’d declined, on first entering, the Bacon Bucks required if you want to buy anything. It struck me as illogical, that alternate currency—it’s like they’d added a middle man where none is needed. In fact, the whole thing is a little off: the eco-friendly sunglasses, the extreme sports booths and nutty vehicles, the stage-adjacent half-pipe (with requisite showoffy teenaged skater dudes), the Festival’s location and the variety of people attending—in indulging in something kooky but still clearly American, the Festival has attracted a vomitus of such interests. This, we’re pretty sure, is democracy: greedy yet basically good-hearted, populist, a hodge-podge of weirdnesses and contradictions. Which thanks to this, the Festival, from an outsider’s perspective, seems unwieldy, occasionally phantasmagoric, and like, really hard to make sense of.
Especially if that outsider is hung over and waterlogged with sweat and starting to freak out a little bit at all the people brushing past him.
It’s not totally clear when sus scrofa domesticus first appeared on the scene. There is a surprising amount of research into/debate on the subject, much of which is complicated and jargony and interdisciplinary in scope, with titles like “The origin of the domestic pig: independent domestication and subsequent introgression” and “Pig husbandry, and post-Pleistocene adaptations along the Taurus-Zagros Arc (Turkey),” etc.
The salient point is this: nobody’s nailed down the truth of the matter.
What seems most certain is that the earliest archeological evidence for the domesticated pig dates to somewhere between 13,000 and 8,000 BC, and comes from somewhere in the Near East.
The domestic pig, in other words, took its sweet time in diverging from the wild boar. It appears to have coincided, roughly, with the long and complex transition from the Paleolithic to the Neolithic era, falling pretty squarely in the Mesolithic category. And much like humanity during this time period, there was lots of crossbreeding and migrations and reverse migrations. Dramatic stuff. A kind of hybrid between wild boar and domestic pig was driven from the Near East and into Europe, where it was mated with European wild boar, which in turn, this product, was then exported back to the Near East. There is in fact a long and fascinating history of people screwing with the genetics of swine which extends to the present day.
Which, speaking of: the American pork industry had its origin in Tampa Bay, FL, where along with Hernando de Soto, the New World’s first thirteen—this conveniently symbolic number, it seems important to point out, provided by the National Pork Board—domesticated pigs touched down in 1539. In three years these thirteen had become seven hundred plus. Cortes, likewise, brought hogs to New Mexico in 1600. Sir Walter Raleigh brought sows to the Jamestown colony in 1607. Swine, as hardy scavengers, were better equipped to deal with pioneer hardships than other livestock. They flourished, multiplied, and spread throughout the New World. By the mid-1800s, pork processing and packing facilities had been established in many major American cities, with Cincinnati, or “Porkopolis,” leading the way. In 1887, Swift and Co. introduced the refrigerated railcar, which transformed the industry. The processing/packing plants grew and were centralized in a few large Midwestern cities: Chicago, St. Louis, Kansas City, and Sioux City, IO. The Industrial era’s emphasis on efficiency led to husbandry techniques that focused on quantity and disease prevention. How to get the fattest pigs for the lowest cost (what’s termed feed efficiency) became the primary goal. Pigs were bred in pens and pumped full of antibiotics, which it’s generally agreed fucked in a major way with taste quality. In 1987, the National Pork Board introduced the “Pork. The Other White Meat” ad campaign, and over the next decade, pork consumption per person increased about four pounds per year. Which of course, higher demand meant a kind of ratification for Big Pork and its processing techniques. And increasingly, a less-than-ideal quality of life for Babe and co.
Swine has proven to be a lively and highly intelligent mammalian species which tends to group and to be very social—to “romp and play games with one another as a way to pass the time,” writes Lauer—and to establish teat orders and dominance hierarchies and have overall very complex relationships between and among each other.
And too there’s this, from the Merck Veterinary Manual for Veterinary Professionals: “Communication in pigs is mainly vocal; there are [around] 20 different recognized sounds…A short grunt is given when the pig is excited, while a long grunt is a contact call and normally associated with pleasurable stimuli. When pigs are aroused they may squeal, and they may scream when hurt. Dominant pigs bark at subordinate pigs as a threat…”
And from a recent New York Times article: “In the current issue of Animal Behavior, researchers present evidence that domestic pigs can quickly learn how mirrors work and will use their understanding of reflected images to scope out their surroundings and find food.”
What else? Well, pigs are “among the quickest of animals to learn a new routine” and “can do a circus’s worth of tricks: jump hoops, bow and stand, spin and make wordlike sounds on command, roll out rugs, herd sheep, close and open cages, play videogames with joysticks [Correspondent’s Note: !!!], and more.”
And perhaps most telling, if also sort of creepy: “The pig genome compares favorably with the human genome,” according to an international team of biologists tasked with drafting the sequence of the pig genome. “Very large sections are maintained in complete pieces.”
Such evidence carries us along into breathtakingly deep waters which are very dark and cold and leave us clinging to the tiniest of floes. Here’s the stuff we consciously refuse to think about. Or at least, I’m hoping this is the case. Because the alternative, that we’re totally thoughtless and unselfconscious on the subject, would seem to imply a very special kind of cruelty. And let’s not even go there regarding the possibility that we actually enjoy crating and slaughtering intelligent and potentially self-aware animals.
But hell, since the subject’s been broached, let’s at least briefly touch on the way s.s. domesticus is slaughtered and packaged by large-scale producers.
Pigs are slaughtered after about six months of life. They’re packed tightly into truck compartments and driven to the slaughterhouse, where they’re unloaded and placed in lairage pens. The amount of time spent in these pens varies, but it generally lasts no longer than a day. The idea is to allow the pigs to recover from the stress and fatigue of transport.
Before the slaughter, the pigs are stunned in one of two ways. They’re either (1) zapped with a 50 Hz electric current via two electrodes (in the form of tongs) placed on each side of the temple, which “induces a state of immediate epilepsy,” or (2) they’re passed through something called “a well with a CO2 and air atmosphere” which description is uncomfortably reminiscent of a gas chamber, particularly in a statement made by HYFOMA, the European Network for Hygienic Manufacturing of Food: “With the CO2 method ‘blood splashing’ is eliminated, and it also removes the human element required in the electrical stunning.” The precise medical language here and elsewhere seems to want to mean a kind of capital-O Objectivity but instead reads as something more sinister.
After the pigs are stunned, they’re hoisted onto an overhead rail and shackled for—again, with precision of terminology—exsanguination. Then: the “carotid artery and jugular vein are cut to drain out blood and to get the muscles relaxed for easy dehairing.” The pigs are left to drain for five minutes, hanging and shackled and, if you believe PETA, still sometimes “fully conscious and squealing.”
Following this step, the “pigs” become the “carcasses.”
The carcasses are dropped into scalding water meant to loosen hair for removal, after which they’re hand-scraped, then hoisted back up, and hand-scraped again. “Any remaining hairs,” says HYFOMA, “can be removed by singeing with a propane or similar torch.”
After the dehairing, the heads are severed and the bodies are eviscerated. Then the carcasses are cut in half, washed, cooled, and finally, cut for packaging. From there it’s a quick trip to the grocery store: “These large-scale operations continue to be the primary source of the bacon that is so readily available at the grocery store,” writes Heather Lauer. “And I think we can all agree that having ready access to bacon is very, very, very important.”
“A nation’s culture,” writes Gandhi, “is in the minds and souls of its people.” Paulo Coelho, the Portugese novelist, asserts that “culture makes people understand each other better.” Oriana Fallaci, the Italian journalist, writes “the moment you give up your principles, and your values, you are dead, your culture is dead,” whereas Allan Ginsberg believes “whoever controls the media, the images, controls the culture.”
According to the American Heritage Dictionary, culture’s got three senses: (A) “The arts, beliefs, customs, institutions, and other products of human work and thought considered as a unit, especially with regard to a particular time or social group,” and (B) “These arts, beliefs, and other products considered with respect to a particular subject or mode of expression,” and (C) “The set of predominating attitudes and behavior that characterize a group or organization.”
To boil it down: it’s an abstract, encompassing term, but essentially, I think, a culture is a constellation of people who all’ve got the same basic conceptual system (even though the surface-level is often diffuse and complicated and tough to pierce), along with the stuff that collection of people produces and the activities in which it engages.
I’ll spare you more pussyfooting and just submit that ours is a culture of consumption. This maybe seems so obvious it doesn’t need saying. If you venture outside your home, the odds are it’s to buy something. You can do this practically anywhere: shopping malls and plazas, gas stations, convenience stores, Walmarts, department stores, universities and churches, etc. Or else you venture out to work, producing something either directly or indirectly someone else might buy, today or someday. Which of course you do with expectations of being paid, currency’s sole function to abet consumption. Even your home is saturated with things and activities meant to strengthen your consumer identity—TV, where over the years programs have been shortened to allow more time for commercials, and the internet, where you’re targeted by algorithms which then determine what product might, when displayed along the sides of your Facebook page, most likely bait you into clicking.
None of this is necessarily bad, it’s important to say. In fact, the difficulty is really in placing value judgments (actually it’s a tautology: how can you make a value judgment about the values you hold?). But first let’s hone the discussion with regards to bacon. As mentioned earlier, it’s a concept. Within the concept are two primary categories we might call foodstuff and cultural artefact. It’s already been established that within the foodstuff category there are multiple sub-categories (streaky, Canadian, jowl, etc.). And within the cultural artefact category you might establish sub-categories like merchandise, events, social media phenomena, etc. And but to maybe annoyingly reiterate, the organizing principle, what collects all this stuff together, is consumption. Which we’re aware undergirds and permeates our culture and is in many ways emblematic of contemporary democracy. It’s no secret the term “democracy” is often associated with the term “capitalism.” The issue lies in what you think of this relationship. And the debate about what value to place on this relationship is amplified considerably when Death is introduced into the conversation: according to the USDA, 9,650,000 pigs were slaughtered in the US in 2013, equal to about 2 billion lbs of pork. Most of these pigs are sold on a carcass-pricing system while they’re still alive. And the industry is concentrated in the hands of a few huge players, whose SOP (described above) is termed “confinement operation,” or Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation, euphemisms akin to “correctional institute.” You probably already know all about the controversy surrounding gestation crates for breeding sows. But in case you don’t: in the interest of production efficiency, sows are confined—for nearly their entire lives—in crates so small they’re not able even to turn around: “Though they may nurse nearly a hundred piglets in their lifetime,” writes Peter Kaminsky, in Pig Perfect, “they will never lay eyes on their offspring.” If you go ahead and Google it the images you’ll find are pretty universally horrifying.
Here then is a theory: such Death Writ Large is an activity in which we engage without really stopping to consider anything beyond our own desires. Which again, seems in keeping with our culture’s basic values, all of which are tethered quite firmly to consumption. Put simply: pork industry practices arose to meet a demand. And the death-uncomfortableness (clunky, I know) mentioned at the outset of this section manifests I’m thinking as willful absence of thought, or more precisely, as the desire toward such. Hence the difficulty we have just talking about it, and our willingness to go along with (or lethargically object to) the industry’s spin on the subject. And too which might begin to explain people like Heather Lauer and bacon’s strange pop-cultural relevance. It functions as distraction, in other words. Time and again in Bacon: A Love Story, dubious industry practices are briefly glossed over or not mentioned at all or even cast in favorable terms, while taste is praised and cultural phenomena is introduced: after a while it all starts to read less like propaganda and more like actual willful ignorance. Heather Lauer acknowledges her addiction—“What was once an occasional pleasure has evolved into an integral part of my daily existence on many different levels”—and thus we can maybe try and dismiss her as an extreme case, an outlier. And yet her book was published, and it sold very well. It garnered praise as a “voluminous look at all things bacon” in various news outlets. It functioned, in other words, as exactly the sort of distraction we’re diagnosing here. What bothers me so much about this is how guileless it is: there is no complex deception at play. It’s just that Lauer and people like her recognize that we don’t want to look in a certain direction, and so they give us something else to look at. When she calls bacon “versatile,” it’s this chimerical ability she’s describing.
And too this is why Orlando Florida, with distraction as it’s raison d’etre, is the perfect location for a festival devoted to bacon. It’s why Festival Park, touching on all sides representatives of Orlando’s various industries, is itself uniquely situated as host.
In the late afternoon the Festival’s hot electric energy starts to dissipate. Shade claims the park, and those few vast chunks of field which before had been so densely populated begin to bald a little bit, and for the first time you can start to smell the meaty stink of all the overflowing trash cans, along with—and intensifying by the minute—the unmistakable fragrance of really bad weed.
It’s around now I come across the Rocket Fizz Soda Pop and Candy Shop booth. This after losing interest in the bluegrass music dominating the stage area. Festival diversity is reduced now to a few sturdy populations: the Nuclear Family Preparing Its Caravan, which consists mainly of kids all high on sugar looping around as Mom and Dad grow increasingly frustrated; the Weary Booth Attendant, who at this point mostly groups with other Weary Booth Attendants, trading stories and sipping beers and maybe starting to dissemble booths; Roving Bands Of Teenagers, which population seems to make everybody nervous; and Hardy Skater Dudes, all of whom trying for last run on the halfpipe, in what seems a complex and subtle ritual.
A plethora of bacon-themed and flavored products are on display at the Rocket Fizz Soda Pop and Candy Shop booth, candy and novelty items and such, and among these, my personal favorite: Slicey the Pig, an action figure.
With an affable smile on his face, Slicey the Pig slices himself in half with a butcher’s knife.
The shopkeeper, an older dude, eagerly and with much salesmanship pitches the few of us here on certain of the items. To me, and with a little flourish reminiscent of the QVC hosts peddling their cheap jewelry, he offers the bacon-flavored floss, which I decline, pointing instead to the Lester Fixin’s Artificial Bacon Flavor Soda. He points along with me. We both point at the Bacon Flavor Soda. How much? I ask.
Two-fifty, he tells me.
Bacon Bucks? I ask. He shakes his head.
I hand over the cash and receive in return a brown bottle. The label’s got a rodeo vibe to it, red and yellow, the words in a font I’ve always thought of as Saloon. I carry it with two hands over to an empty picnic table. I twist the cap, sniff the contents and, with a prototypical Nuclear Family bearing witness, take a swig. The taste is indescribably awful. Here I need to admit: I took precise notes on the flavors involved, but they’re lost somewhere, and frankly, I’m grateful for this: it’s not a taste I’d ever like to relive, and it’s not one I’d wish on even the most dickheadish reader of this essay. It was terrible. I took another swig, in the interests of journalistic veracity. I gagged. The Nuclear Family looked on in horror. In full view of the Festival apparatus, I gripped the trashcan beside the table and retched into it.
Nothing came out.