ROCKDALE, Texas — These are good times for bacon. Entrepreneurs have taken to the notion that those crispy fried strips of pork belly make everything better (and might even be good for you) and applied it to ... well, everything, it seems.
There’s bacon ice cream, bacon milk shakes, chocolate-dipped bacon, chicken fried bacon and bacon-infused sunscreen, bacon-flavored vodka, even a “Wake and Bacon” alarm clock that rouses you from slumber to the smell of frying bacon.
Yea, verily, the comforting aroma of sizzling bacon lays heavy upon the land. And that’s a good thing, especially for pork producers.
Health care professionals might be alarmed at the trend, but it has provided a shot in the arm to the pork industry. Recently, the Chicago Mercantile Exchange Daily Livestock Report noted that “the insatiable demand for bacon has been the saving grace for hog prices this spring.” The article quoted USDA statistics showing that the “belly primal,” a calculated index based on the selling prices of various pork belly products, was 69 percent higher this spring than it was a year ago.
The fad has trended down to the small producers who grow pork for niche markets, and as it turns out, there are niches within the niches.
At Richardson Farms in Rockdale, where Jim Richardson has been raising hogs and selling pork wholesale and retail for 13 years. He says the bacon part of his business has never been better.
“It’s my number one cut,” Richardson said. “You would think it would be the loins or the chops, but demand for bacon keeps going up all the time. It’s sort of the ‘in’ thing, but it has been for quite a while. There’s a very high demand locally and all across the country.”
A lot of his customers buy uncured bacon — just a quarter of the unsalted pork belly — and cure it themselves. “It gives them a certain pleasure,” Richardson said. “It takes them back to their roots.”
The roots don’t extend as far back as we might think, though the Chinese were salting pork bellies — making bacon — as early as 1500 BC. Salted pork belly was popular on the frontier because the brining/salting process helped preserve the meat in the pre-refrigeration days, but bacon and beans was more common than bacon and eggs on frontier tables.
Oscar Mayer introduced the first packaged and sliced bacon in 1924. A public relations legend named Edward Bernays, who sold the American people on water fluoridation, Dixie Cups and Calvin Coolidge, was hired by the Beech-Nut Packing Company to convince Americans they needed to eat more bacon.
Bernays asked his agency’s own doctor if he thought a heavy breakfast was healthier than a light breakfast. The doctor’s answer: Oh, yes! Absolutely! The doctor then persuaded several thousand of his colleagues to agree with him, and the news was taken to magazines and newspapers across the country and, lo, bacon and eggs became the standard American breakfast.
But it’s not just for breakfast anymore. Richardson recently started making and selling what he calls “50-50” — equal parts ground beef and bacon. It’s selling like hotcakes to restaurants and at farmers markets.
“You just fry up the burger and you have a bacon burger,” he said. “People love it.”
Bacon’s reputation has been sullied by doctors, researchers and nutritionists who tell us that bacon is a nutritional vacuum filled with mostly empty calories, grease, fat and cholesterol. However, the popular Atkins diet, heavy on the protein and very light on the carbs, not only made it OK to eat bacon again but included it as part of the weight-loss regimen! Even Bernays would have been impressed with the turnaround in public perception.
Not that bacon needs a PR firm to sell it. News reports recently told of Pearl Cantrell, 105, of Abilene, who credited bacon as a key to her longevity. She said it helped her survive the hard times. For the last four years, the city of Austin has hosted the Bacon Takedown, an amateur cooking contest featuring — you guessed it — bacon. This year’s festival featured Glazed Pig Donuts, Bacon Tamales and many other things made better with bacon.
Bacon mania may wane one of these days but it will never go away because a certain number of people will always believe that not only does bacon make everything better and that anything that tastes that good can’t be bad for you.
The attitude was summed up from an old farmer many years ago, long before bacon mania, who was told by his doctor that he had to give up eating pork. “Pork killed your daddy,” the doctor reminded him.
“Yeah, it did,” the farmer said. “But it took 92 years to do it.”
For more information about “50-50” and Richardson Farms, visit their website: