The best bacon (so far)
My relationship with bacon is intensely personal. It’s all about my father.
My father lived to eat rather than eating to live. He adored a steak with a thick fat rind. He loved lobster dipped in drawn butter. He made his own creamy rich eggnog every Christmas. And he made bacon every Saturday.
When I was four he had a heart attack. It was 1956. He lived, but the prescription for preventing another one was a culinary death sentence. No more fat. No more butter. No more anything. He was made to drink a shot glass of Mazola corn oil every morning for reasons that evade me even today. Instead of scramble eggs rich in butter he settled for a soft-boiled egg with a little salt and pepper.
But he still made bacon for my sister and I every Saturday. It was Oscar Mayer, the only bacon I knew existed as a child. He would start the skillet on low, low heat and add the bacon. He cooked it ever so gently so it never curled up but just browned into a perfect crisp ribbon. He never ate a slice of it. Not even a tiny piece.
For years, it was Oscar Mayer only for me. And then what I think of as the Bacon Revolution occurred. Designer bacon started to be a thing. And I became a loyal and insatiable foot soldier in the battle of yum. I still am.
So my dad would be thrilled to know that I conducted a designer bacon taste test the other day with three brands I had in my ice box. Yes, I collect bacon the way some people acquire novelty salt and pepper shakers. Only my collection has a “best by” date stamped on each package.
By the way, I think Benton’s Bacon is what threw this whole revolution into full throttle. When chefs from coast to coast started referencing it on their menus by name it suddenly became okay to plunk down $10 for a package of what King Daddy’s Grannie Belle called “streak ‘o lean.”
The first package was from Early’s, which is a Tennessee company that was our supplier of country ham in the dark years of living in Reno. Actually, that’s a lie. Living in Reno was a dream. The food was fantastic. But you couldn’t grow tomatoes and there was no bulk sausage or country ham. We had to import. But you could get martini samples in grocery stores so we lived with the inconvenience.
The second package was from Niman Ranch, which is known for it’s sustainable, humanely raised meats. Happy pigs make spectacular bacon.
And the third was from Porter Road Butchers, right here in Nashville. It’s a nose-to-tail artisan butcher shop that also sells lard and tallow. I like them.
Early’s bacon on the left, Porter Road’s bacon in the middle and Niman Ranch’s bacon on the right
Hands down, the winner was Porter Road. Early’s was slightly too salty. Niman Ranch’s was in the middle and just fine when not stacked against the elixir that is Porter Road’s. Before baking (400 degrees for about 20 minutes — the best way despite my father’s skill with a skillet) it looked extremely fatty but once cooked it had a defined, intense bacon flavor and shattered spectacularly in the mouth. Or as my friend Elizabeth Power, who speaks daily with fairies and elves, said, “Porter Road looks like it was killed at the right time of moon.”