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For the bacon-obsessed, a camp in Michigan has the cure

By Jane Black
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 23, 2010; E01

ANN ARBOR, MICH. -- Keith and Angie Ewing left their home in Friendswood, Tex., at 6 a.m. Thursday. They skirted Shreveport, La., passed through Little Rock and Indianapolis. Twenty-one hours and 1,320 miles later, they arrived here, exhausted.

On Saturday morning, though, they knew the trip had been worth it. The sun shone brightly as the couple sat down to breakfast under a big white tent. Their plates were piled high: with hickory-smoked bacon from Edwards of Surry, Va.; long pepper bacon from Arkansas' Ham I Am; and applewood-smoked bacon from Nueske's in Wisconsin; plus bacon scones and a slice of bacon-apple coffee cake for good measure.

The Ewings' journey is proof -- as if that were necessary -- that where bacon is celebrated, people will come. But this event promised to be more than a destination for porky excess. Camp Bacon was to be a one-day Davos of cured and/or smoked pork. Many luminaries of the bacon world, plus new, rising stars, would be here: Allan Benton, the humble Tennessean whose pork bellies have made chefs swoon from New York to Napa; Herb Eckhouse, whose La Quercia pancetta and prosciutto from Iowa stand up to the best from Italy; and Nick Spencer, a Brit based in Chicago who began making back bacon this spring. Bacon poetry readings and a performance by 73-year-old R&B artist Andre Williams, who wrote a song called "Bacon Fat" in 1956, would help define the meat's cultural impact.

"It's a thinking person's bacon camp," said Ari Weinzweig, co-founder of Ann Arbor's gourmet mecca Zingerman's, which hosted the event. "I want to get people off the 'I love bacon' thing: 'Give me any and give me more.' I want them to know the differences between them and how to use them."

The American food renaissance has inspired many to more carefully consider what they eat. But although the finer points of wine, cheese, chocolate and coffee have been embraced with gusto, lots of food lovers have a blind spot for bacon. More, it seems, is always better. The obsession over smoked and cured pork belly has led less often to smart discussions of technique and history and more to bacon eat-athons, bacon memoirs, bacon air fresheners and bacon salt (motto: "Everything should taste like bacon") that contains no bacon at all.

About once a year, some food writer tries to right this culinary wrong. In 2007, as bacon mania stretched into uncharted territory, Food and Wine's Nick Fauchald bemoaned his drawer full of Band-Aids made to look like bacon strips, bacon-streaked wrapping paper and bacon breath mints. "What I really need," he wrote, "is a bacon garbage can." In 2009, in anticipation of the two-day Baconfest held in Chicago, TimeOut's David Tamarkin declared defiantly that everything really is not better with bacon. And just a few months ago, Salon's Francis Lam tried a new, equally unsuccessful tack: Love bacon if you must, he said. But the new bacon is country ham.

Camp Bacon was Weinzweig's attempt to rechannel bacon enthusiasm. He had first heard of the idea 2005 when he found out about the Southern Foodways Alliance's cheffy bacon event with the same title, held in Louisville. The name conjured powerful images in his head. In his 2009 book, "Zingerman's Guide to Better Bacon," Weinzweig painted a vision of campers cooking bacon over a fire, of bacon-cooking and -slicing classes, bacon-sack races and singalongs. And there was the forbidden element: Raised in a kosher home, Weinzweig wrote, he didn't eat his first piece of bacon until he was about 21.

The real thing, which cost $150 per person, was held last weekend in an industrial park near Zingerman's creamery and bakery. It certainly delivered on the kitsch. After breakfast, with the scent of bacon still wafting through the tent, Weinzweig declared the official start to bacon bingo. Every camper had a card bearing terms such as "slab," "dry cure," "rub" and "rashers" instead of bingo numbers.

Later, he asked the first bacon trivia question: How long ago are wild boars thought to have originated? (Twenty-year-old Isabel Wanty of Ann Arbor won with a close-enough answer of 50,000 years -- 40,000 was correct -- to be awarded a pair of dangly bacon earrings. ) Weinzweig noted that, although there would be bacon tastings through the dozen presentations, if any of the approximately 70 participants got hungry, all they needed to do was hold up the mini-skillet at the center of each table and a camp counselor would bring more.

There was plenty of thoughtful, even academic, discussion as well. University of Michigan professor Tung-Hui Hu began by reciting his own poem entitled "Curing Images and Pork." Benton took the stage to tell his now-famous (at least among bacon aficionados) tale of how he became baconmaker to the culinary stars, such as chef-restaurateur David Chang, a story that seemed still to surprise him. He gave a rich account of what making old-fashioned bacon was like in impoverished Appalachia, where he grew up; on hog-killing day, traditionally Thanksgiving, families started at about 3:30 a.m. They shot the pigs between the eyes, cut their throats to bleed them, then poured pails of hot water over them to scrape the hides clean. Processing several 700-pound pigs could take a family three or four days. Nothing went to waste.

"We ate the tongue, the tail, the ears and the lungs, which were called the 'lights.' I never did like the lungs much," Benton remembered.

What's the secret to his bacon?

"I'm not making my bacon any better than my grandparents did," he said.

Jan Longone, curator of American culinary history at University of Michigan's William L. Clements Library, followed with a sweeping and whirlwind tour of bacon history. Using PowerPoint, she displayed recipes, bacon advertisements and this poem by humorist Ogden Nash:

The Pig, if I am not mistaken,
Supplies us sausage, ham, and Bacon.
Let others say his heart is big,
I think it stupid of the Pig.

Her piece de resistance was an illustrated map titled "Gehography." Commissioned in 1876 by William Emerson Baker, a wealthy Bostonian, it presents a colorful United States surrounded by frolicking hogs, each of which represented a state and its traditional pork dish. Arizona was, apparently, famous for "Jerked Beef and Greasy Doings," Maryland had its terrapin soup, canvasbacks and pork chops, and Virginia turned out Frost fish fry, Brunswick stew, ham, eggs and pandowdy. Cuba is depicted as a plump little sausage off the coast of Florida.

Just about the time campers were getting hungry for lunch, the presentations became less cerebral. Cookbook author Molly Stevens demonstrated how to make superior spaghetti carbonara and braised vegetables with bacon, both of which ended up on the midday buffet. Later, La Quercia's Eckhouse led a make-your-own session on pancetta, an unsmoked bacon. Campers took home their salted and spiced organic bellies to finish the two-week process.

Camp Bacon's goal was to encourage a less fetishized approach to loving bacon. As the day came to an end, campers were more knowledgeable. But they weren't any less obsessed.

Michele Gradinscak, a graphic designer in Ann Arbor who got her first smoker at age 16, maintained that she still "couldn't think of one thing that doesn't taste better with bacon." Terry Chang, an Ann Arbor substitute teacher, looked positively puzzled when asked whether she believed that the bacon fad would eventually blow over: "Why would it?"

For Keith Ewing, who had driven in from Texas, bacon had the smell of opportunity. He had lost his job as a contractor for BP in January. Who knew? Somehow, bacon might provide the basis for a new career.

Recipes

Bacon, Cream Cheese and Horseradish Dip

Vegetable Braise With Bacon

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