Will the 'everything's better with bacon' trend ever die down?

eshaw@islandpacket.comFebruary 4, 2014 

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  • IF YOU GO

    WHAT: Bacon and Bourbon Festival

    WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Feb 8

    WHERE: Memminger Auditorium, 56 Beaufain Street in downtown Charleston

    COST: $60, VIP $95

    DETAILS: www.baconandbourbonsc.com

Bacon has been around for thousands of years, but ever since Oscar Mayer patented the first sliced, packaged version in 1924, the cured pig meat has risen to the peak of trendy food lists, with the average American eating nearly 18 pounds of it a year.

There has been an explosion of novelty bacon dishes and products, enough to satisfy the most ardent porkophile's bacon tooth. Today you can find bacon ice cream, bacon dipped in chocolate, bacon candy canes, bacon bubble gum, bacon salt, bacon sauce, bacon-infused vodka, bacon martinis, bacon air fresheners, bacon bandages, even bacon deodorant in "meaty fresh" scent.

"Bacon Mania" has its own Wikipedia page. #BaconLove is an active hashtag on Twitter.

In a study conducted by Maple Leaf Foods, 43 percent of the respondents said they would rather eat bacon than have sex.

Yes, it's crispy and indulgent. But why is everybody so obsessed with bacon?

"It's the meat that has a lot to say," said Rebecca Gosnell, the organizer of the Bacon and Bourbon Festival, which is Feb. 8 in Charleston. Gosnell challenged 12 chefs from local restaurants and 18 distilleries to create the most whimsical bacon-inspired dishes they could imagine. Intriguing offerings like pork belly lollipops, bacon-flavored cotton candy and spiced chocolate-bourbon truffles are on the docket along with bourbon-inspired craft beer from Palmetto Brewing Company.

What do pork belly lollipops taste like, you ask? Heaven -- at least according to Chef Chad Billings' description. First, he'll render pork belly in an oven and then in a smoker. After that, he'll cook the meat into pieces that will be skewered on a lollipop stick and seared to order, topped with candied sweet potato bourbon glaze and served with grits.

Equally over-the-top is the "Bacon Bomb" that Chef Brian Parkhurst of Ted's Butcherblock is whipping up for the festival. It will be a bacon and beef slider with American cheese and applewood smoked bacon. The bun will have bacon bits baked into it, and will be made with bacon fat in place of butter. Naturally, they will be served with bacon-flavored toothpicks.

"I just wanted something that was all bacon," Parkhurst said.

But is all bacon, all the time a lasting business model? Or are chefs stretching themselves too thin by trying to capitalize on this one culinary theme? Some, like James Beard Award-winning chef Mike Lata of FIG Restaurant in Charleston, say too much bacon is not a good thing.

"I think bacon has always been more popular with media, critics and chefs than the actual consumer," Lata said by email. "I can't tell you how many people have told me they don't want to eat heavy, bacon-laden dishes at every restaurant. It seems like there are a bunch of bandwagoners that like to use bacon as a cool club subject -- and you know who you are."

Lata seems to be the minority in the "bacon is overhyped" camp, however.

The general consensus among Lowcountry chefs is that bacon is here to stay, trend or no trend.

"I think certainly its market hype will come and go, but people have their affinity toward the flavors they're fond of," Gosnell said. "And I don't think people's affinity toward bacon will fade anytime soon."

Even now that people are becoming increasingly health-conscious, when they want to indulge and eat something they're not supposed to, bacon comes to mind, Gosnell said.

Not to say that you can't eat bacon and watch your waistline. MorningStar Farms now makes a vegetarian bacon, and Paleo bacon is available for those on the Paleo diet.

Interest in artisanal bacon has also grown. Membership for the Bacon of the Month club at Ted's Butcherblock in Charleston has increased every year, Parkhurst said. Right now there are 325 members, with orders typically increasing around Christmas and Father's Day, he said. Ted's also started hosting a bacon eating contest and plans to make it an annual event held in October. (The record is 10 pieces of bacon in one minute.)

Chad Billings of Southerly Restaurant in Charleston said that because bacon and pork are a such a huge part of Southern dishes, their popularity will hold up in the Lowcountry. Which makes sense, as South Carolina is the No. 8 top bacon market in the country, according to the American Meat Institute.

"I think it depends on the market. In a place like Charleston, there's still quite a bit of clout," he said. "From a countrywide standpoint, I can see that it's probably plateaued. It's not on the decline, but we're not going to see a resurgence like we saw three or four years ago."

Not everything has to have bacon, but Southern chefs such as Brandon Carter of the Inn at Palmetto Bluff in Bluffton certainly like to use it.

"Yeah, we have a lot of bacon," he said of Palmetto Bluff's menu. "We try to tone it back sometimes to show range. I have to restrain myself."

For Palmetto Bluff's Music To Your Mouth Festival this past November, Carter brought back the popular "Bacon Forest," a cluster of wire trees with different varieties of bacon hanging from the limbs. Festival workers could hardly keep up with how fast people were plucking off the decadent meat candy.

It has always been and always will be an ingredient that chefs reach for, Carter said.

"Bacon is timeless. It will never go out of style."

Follow Erin Shaw at twitter.com/IPBG_ErinShaw.

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