It’s no secret that Stoney’s super grilled cheese sandwich is a thing of beauty, starting with its fat slices of rustic white bread, as crackly as an FM station on the western plains of Nebraska. The kitchen knows to lay the cheese on thick, too, so that the neon orange slices of American provide a gooey contrast to the bread, to the sting of the red onions and to the hint of acid hiding in the tomatoes.
The sandwich’s lone misstep? Its bacon, the party crasher of ingredients, the one that shows up and trashes the place. As it does with almost everything it touches, the bacon treats the rest of the grilled cheese sandwich as a captive audience, there only to listen to it mansplain the superiority of smoky strips of cured pork belly.
I’m sorry, but everything is not better with bacon.
Cooks, chefs and recipe developers are practically obsessed with bacon, and I think I know why: Back in 2013, Wired magazine partnered with Food Network to crunch some numbers. Data miners combed through more than 49,000 recipes as well as more than 906,000 ratings, comparing recipes with and without bacon. The results were predictable.
“Of all the foods we analyzed, bacon lends the most improvement to sandwiches,” the author concluded. “Many other foods also benefited. In fact, we found that when you crunch the data for all recipes, those with bacon do in fact rate higher.” The article was slapped with the following headline: Math Proves Bacon Is a Miracle Food.
Five years later, our infatuation with bacon is so complete that I wouldn’t be surprised if some high-end restaurant in a gilded luxury hotel would one day just clip a few strips of it to a clothesline and charge diners $21 for the dish, like a poor man’s version of Alinea’s original high-wire bacon act.
I have nothing against bacon. I mean, is there a bite in the known universe more immediately satisfying than the first chomp of bacon, still hot and crisp from the pan? Its pleasures are not difficult to pin down. They’re the same ones that our brain craves with a junkie’s fervor: salt, fat and sugar, all contained in thin strips that also provide an irresistible crunch. The meat’s entry into the fashion world was probably inevitable: Americans pant equally for sex and bacon. For a hot-minute there was even a dating app for bacon lovers. I imagine there was a lot of pillow talk about rendering.
But just as every activity in life isn’t improved by sex, every dish from the kitchen is not improved with bacon. The Internet, of course, will tell you otherwise. Take a brief stroll and discover the dishes yourself: bacon cinnamon buns, bacon-wrapped wings, bacon oatmeal, ramen with bacon, bacon ranch dip, gnocchi with bacon and mozzarella, bacon date bread, bacon-pecan chocolate truffles, dulce de bacon milkshake, bacon-wrapped grissini and bacon-wrapped pig’s feet stuffed inside a porchetta dusted with dehydrated bacon dust.
Okay, I made the last one up. You get the point: If a dish already rocks your world, someone out there will think it’s better with bacon.
I don’t know exactly when baconmania began, but some point to the Atkins diet craze of the late 1990s, when carbs were out and fats were in. This may be true, but chefs have been shoving bacon down our throats for far longer. I still remember bacon-wrapped scallops back in the 1980s. If there’s one ingredient in the world that doesn’t need a slice of bacon around its waist to attract diners, it’s a sweet, succulent scallop — unless, of course, you’re a chef trying to offload a batch of old shellfish on unsuspecting customers.
You know another dish that doesn’t need bacon to improve its desirability? The cheeseburger, a dish that, if prepared correctly, already has two sources of tongue-coating fats that lock perfectly into place. Add bacon, and you have a pork interloper asserting its authority like Cambridge Analytica over a nation’s electoral process. As a country, we’ve been tricked into believing that you need bacon atop a cheeseburger. You don’t. You never do.
Sure, bacon has its place in many dishes. A BLT is an architectural wonder, the whole of which would collapse without its strips of bacon acting as the support beams. Same for the club sandwich. Frankly, I can’t think of scrambled eggs without bacon, either, the soft curds serving as a silky counterpoint to the crispy pork. And what’s Alsatian choucroute garnie without slab bacon? A disappointment, I’d venture. There are countless other examples, too.
The difference is that bacon is an essential ingredient in the BLT and club sandwich. It’s extraneous in so many other dishes. Bacon has become our national crutch, and we’re relying on it to the point of disability. Asparagus doesn’t require a spiral of bacon around its stalk. Fish fillets don’t need to be entombed in bacon. And burgers surely don’t demand applewood-smoked bacon to improve their Q Score among diners.
So let’s end this madness and admit that we have a problem: When it comes to bacon, we don’t know when to stop and say, “This dish is good enough already.”