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06 March 2007

bacon, oh bacon

bacon from A&J's

I have such a love-love relationship with bacon.

My first experience of bacon was of the Oscar Mayer kind. Every slice resolutely the same, stamped out in a factory and smelling faintly of nitrites. I ate it — no question — but it always struck me as odd that it sizzled and shivered away from the black surface of the plug-in griddle as though it were afraid. On top of that, in my house, bacon was fried to within an inch of its life. All soft bites gone. Crispness with the same chew as Lay's potato chips.

For years, I didn't eat any bacon. Eighteen years of my life transpired without any red meat. Ten years of those were without any meat at all. Now, I've heard more than one person refer to bacon as the "gateway meat," the one that guides people toward the land of carnivores. For me, it was chicken, which appeared in a dream, several nights running, until I relented and ate tandoori chicken, then sighed with relief. But I can see why bacon entices even vegetarians into biting it. That saltiness, the depth of flavor, that one little pocket of fat that has not been entirely zapped and cascades down the teeth and onto the tongue in a rush of familiar taste that can bring tears to the eyes.

I love bacon. Even when I burn it, and the fire alarm goes off in the dorm.

The Chef has brought more bacon into my life. He adores it, swears by it. After all, it was a warm bacon vinaigrette, on a frisee salad, that compelled me to ask him to move in. Whether he is slipping bacon into a lamb stew, or frying up a couple of slices with our eggs on a Sunday morning, the Chef reaches for bacon nearly every time. Lately, he has been making crispy pork belly on his menu — once, late at night, I thought I would faint from the crisp taste of it. This has only driven us to eat more bacon. There is, right now, a bowl full of frozen bacon fat in our freezer.

Thank goodness I eat my vegetables besides.

For the past ten months, we have been on the search for the perfect bacon. We've tried organic bacon, applewood smoked bacon, bacon from Whole Foods, bacon from the Market, imported bacon, and the cheapest bacon available at the grocery store down the street. They have all pleased us — it is bacon — but not one has been the platonic ideal of bacon that our mouths have been imagining.

Why is it that we sometimes have to go so far from home before we realize what we have?

A & J Meats sits six blocks from our home. When I walk into the wood-panelled room with glass display cases, I feel like I have walked into a butcher’s shop from the 1950s. The tops of the cases are lined with bottles of locally made tartar sauce, barbeque spices in tins, and an old-fashioned ticket dispenser for the customers who throng into the place. Milling about the store are neighborhood moms and dads, their toddlers running toward the hot dogs. If it is Saturday morning, then the woman in her eighties comes in for a single lamb chop; she is given preferential treatment, because she has been a customer at the shop longer than some of the butchers have been working there. Behind the counters walk friendly men and women in crisp white aprons, ready with smiles and advice. I ask my favorite butchers — one of whom is a woman — what is good that day. This curiosity and trust led me to cook my first flank steak, pork tenderloin, and duck breast. Every time, the butchers walked me through the process of searing or roasting, both with their handouts copied on colored paper and their murmured words of encouragement. Even if the meat shrink-wrapped in supermarkets is slightly cheaper, the personal service I receive at A&J’s is worth the extra cost.

And the bacon? Oh, the bacon. It is dense with meaty flavor — how do I name the flavor of bacon? smoky? earthiness? a certain chew? In the days when I was a teacher, I probably would have brought bacon in for my students and asked them to chew some and describe it. But me? I'm stymied. There's some elusive depth that is beyond my comprehension. Maybe that's why I go back to it. Exploring the infinite wisdom of bacon.

Have you ever noticed how much fat is in commercial bacon? Some brands, it seems that each slice is swathed with white fat, with only a thin thread of pink meat to make it seem that you are eating bacon. But A and J's? Well, look at it. Of all the bacons I have eaten lately, this one is the most bacony.

The other day, when I stopped by for another half pound, I asked a silly question of one of the butchers. "Where do you find this stuff?"
He looked up at me, puzzled, and then said, "We make it ourselves." Take some pork belly, brine it in sugar and spices, let it sit, and then slice it thick.

Oh that's right. Every butchers used to do this — make their own meat.

If you live in Seattle, no matter what part, it's worth a trip to A and J's. Aside from the apricot pork sausage and the house-cured brisket and the top sirloin so juicy it just glistens? You really just need to buy some bacon.

In fact, with all this writing, I just figured out what we're having for breakfast tomorrow.


At 2:04 AM, Blogger Anne-Sophie said...

Oooh, I'm with you on the bacon!!! Since moving to London, we only buy our bacon from Sillfield Farms at Borough Market. When I fried it the first time, I was wondering what was different: oh yes, no water seeping out, no foul smell of nitrites. Just plain goodness. Bacon rules!

At 7:19 AM, Blogger C said...

Can you please describe the pork belly? I'm really curious. My family is of Pennsylvania German heritage, and we use pork in interesting ways.

At 7:22 AM, Blogger Slacker Mom said...

You had me at bacon.

(I am so making the warm bacon vinegrette salad I have to go to the store... :grin:)

At 7:57 AM, Blogger Mike Eberhart said...

I enjoy bacon once in a while, though I rarely make it. For me, it only comes to mind when I am scrambling some eggs, or perhaps if I bake up a fresh loaf of bread and have some tomatoes sitting around to forge a BLT with. I probably would eat it more often were it not for the perception of high cholesterol and fat that go with it. And, as you have discussed, some bacon is definitely a cut above - and, good bacon is just wonderful whether plain or served with other things.

At 8:25 AM, Blogger Loner said...

I wish I could find such a butcher here - I may have to look a bit harder. Currently favored at our house is the Plumrose natural that doesn't have any nitrates in it - just wonderous with farm fresh eggs. I'll have to try the quinoa though, we usually go with grits and fresh round pepper.

At 8:38 AM, Blogger Gaile said...

oh god i miss bacon. vegetarian/pescatarian for a decade now, and still there's nothing that used to walk on legs that I miss more than the salty, smokey flavour of bacon. *sigh*

At 10:00 AM, Blogger Kristin said...

Shauna - I LOVE your posts ! You are such an amazing writer, and you make everyday, mundane things shine & sparkle. Keep it up !

At 10:09 AM, Blogger Liz said...

mmmmmmmm, bacon!

My problem with bacon is that no matter how much bacon I have, I still consider it one serving. Be it four slices or a pound, my poor husband had better stake out his share right off the bat. There is a good reason I rarely buy bacon and then only from the butcher's where I can get it in small, rational (sob) quantities.

I'm waiting for tomato season. BLT salad with avocado, baby, and a citrus vinaigrette.

At 10:27 AM, Blogger Jean Layton-GF Momma said...

Ah Bacon! A food that has such emotion attached. I remember in school having a heated discussion with a vegan classmate about meat as food. She insisted that people should only eat veggies. and I mentioned bacon. Her eyes clouded, her breathing increased and she admitted it was the only food she craved.
A couple of weeks later, I saw her at one of the better breakfast restaurants, eating her fill of yummy crisp bacon.
I still indulge a couple of times a month. Hempler's non nitrate bacon is my choice for now, but A&J's sounds so wonderful, I will have to check it out.

At 5:08 PM, Blogger KW said...

Tee hee! Once my then-4=year-old daughter and I were discussing a vegan friend of mine. My daughter thought her concern for animals was very sound and wondered why our family didn't eat that way, too. "Well, honey," I explained, "If we were vegan we couldn't eat bacon," which neatly resolved THAT issue! Only trouble was, the next time my vegan friend came to visit my daughter followed her around all weekend, saying "You don't eat bacon? REALLY?"

At 6:06 PM, Blogger E! said...

Seriously, bacon is the stuff of life - and one of my most favorite bonds with a dear friend. It's been our ritual fo I don't know how long now...I visit her, and we make bacon. She visits me, and we make bacon. Even when our respective toddlers are at their beastiest - her son 2 1/2, and mine just a year behind - a slice of bacon will always silence the screams. I LOVE bacon. LOVE LOVE LOVE BACON! And now I think I'll have to google around for pork belly brining so I can learn more about maybe making my own!!! ...oh, and have I mentioned lately how much I LOVE this blog?!

ps - I have to admit, I like my bacon crispy. Exactly how you described it - Lay's potato chip crispy. I fry the hell out of it, until those fat bubbles have gone from glisteny translucent to wizened tan. But maybe I'll start trying it just a bit less crispy...maybe. mmm...bacon!

At 6:39 PM, Blogger Rachael said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 6:43 PM, Blogger Rachael said...

I suspect for many, this post is akin to you reading one rhapsodizing on warm bread. Eat it or not, the prose is beautiful.

At 7:52 PM, Blogger Jodi said...

Hi Shauna!

I'm a fellow gluten-intolerant chick and I've been reading your blog for a while but this is my first comment.

A friend of mine always says that bacon makes everything better and I wholeheartedly agree! I also have a reserve of bacon fat in my frig - it's great for roast potatoes or fried tomatoes.

BTW, I'm really enjoying your posts, recipes and the love story between you and the Chef (his potato & leek soup is awwwwwwesome).

Cheers, Jodi

My blog

At 9:49 PM, Blogger Megan said...

mmmmm...bacon. my brother(who now cooks for a living, and shares "the healing powers of pork" with the public) and I used to dance around the kitchen doing a little jig we called "the bacon dance" while listening to it sizzle in the pan. thanks for bringing back fond memories...and making my mouth water :)

At 12:34 AM, Blogger Melody said...

Bacon is the candy-bar of the meat world.

At 3:40 PM, Blogger Chris said...

Bacon is love...I love a BLT on toasted Jewish Rye...mmmm...mmm. I began to go to a butcher a couple of months ago for my meats and that was the first time I had seen bacon up close, and not in store packaging. it just solidified my love that much more...

I love your posts - Thanks!

At 12:23 AM, Blogger Linda said...

I adore bacon. I can't find anything in France that tastes like it did in the States. Nothing better with eggs or pancakes or French toast, quiche. I could go on. My mouth is watering.

At 9:57 AM, Blogger hollygee said...

Commercial bacon -- ptew! Not only the nitrates/nitrites, have you checked the salt content? I used to get a New Hampshire cured and smoked bacon when I lived in Vermont. It was excellent and had about a third of the salt that the commercial products. I have been lucky to find some good ones, too, since arriving in the Bay Area.

At 3:08 PM, Blogger Shauna said...

Clearly, bacon elicits amazing comments!


The Chef was braising the pork belly in a red-wine sauce, last month. This month, it's crispy roasted, with spaetzle, golden raisins, spinach, and a sherry vinaigrette.


I know, my dear. I thought of that as I wrote. Sorry to torment you.

For everyone else, your comments have made us laugh and long to eat more bacon.

At 1:20 AM, Blogger Stockman said...

Well guys if you were in Australia i would say come to Stockmans Tucker Butchery as we are the only 100% gluten free butcher in Australia and we have been told we sell the best bacon and ham they have ever had as we pride ourselves on good old fashion service in a open plan friendly environmen


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