Thursday, October 29, 2009

Respect the Pig: A Defense of Bacon

I’ve been thinking about his comment for weeks now, ever since I saw this Facebook status update from Richard Blais: “Bacon is overrated.” Now, I never thought that in my lifetime, I would need to defend bacon. At the very least, I could just rap my hand against the table like a petulant nine-year-old and proclaim, “But…but…but…it’s bacon!” And that would suffice.

But he’s recently taken his argument to the airwaves, so to speak, via his column in Creative Loafiing, and I must offer my rebuttal. “Bacon is overrated;” I respectfully disagree.

To help explain my position, let me say that I serve as a chef at one of Atlanta’s more prominent Southern restaurants; love for the pig is a part of my culinary DNA. I also have nothing against Chef Blais. I worked under him briefly at a now-defunct location, and he has extended me nothing but great courtesy every time I have eaten in his restaurants. However, I can find little substance to his viewpoint beyond simply declaring bacon overrated due to its current surge in popularity.

First, I simply cannot understand how someone, particularly a chef, can slap the dreaded “cliche” label on praising a food source that occurs in nature—the pig. As chefs, part of the passion that fuels us involves getting excited over ingredients. I must agree with some of the readers’ comments that calling bacon overrated does in fact come off sounding a bit elitist. Like Blais, I also adore Allan Benton’s fabulous bacon and use it quite frequently; but to say that I use it exclusively would imply that, “What I’m eating is better than what you supermarket-shoppers are eating.”

Second, I think that Chef Blais was incorrect in his use of the term “overrated.” How can bacon be overrated? It is exactly what you think it’s going to be. I think that his categorical declaration that bacon is overrated masks the real merits of his second argument: that bacon is used as a crutch. Too often, chefs fall into the trap of using too much of a good thing without a proper understanding of the ingredient. While bacon can improve upon many flavors, the notion that, “Everything’s better with bacon” is quite misleading. Its salty, smoky notes add great depth to dishes with sweeter components—and many others--but it can certainly be added illogically. I understand that the hipster thing to do is to swim against the current of mass adoration, but such a brazen statement as “overrated” seems geared to garner attention.

Currently, Chef Blais has both a bacon cheeseburger and a potato salad with bacon on his menu at FLIP. By his argument, are those dishes now overrated? I don’t believe so…they were delicious when I had them. On the Top Chef: Season 4 finale, Blais offered up two dishes that featured some form of pork belly (braised belly and a bacon ice cream, respectively, if I recall correctly). Would he consider them overrated? I hope not, because they both looked great. Would he make the 140-mile trek to Madisonville, TN and tell Allan Benton that his intensely smoky bacon is overrated? I can just see Allan shaking his head now, throwing a single log into his tiny smokehouse furnace.

So how would he like fellow chefs to take action, if at all? Personally, I feel that bacon (along with delicious cousins like andouille sausage, tasso, and country ham) is a shining example of culinary alchemy—when man’s brilliance meets the succulent and unctuous pig. As the great-grandson of Mississippi Delta sharecroppers, I personally have grown up knowing the versatility of the pig, from pan-frying pork chops in streak-o’lean to hoarding a coffee can of bacon grease in the refrigerator for the sole purpose of improving green beans. I’m sure I’m not alone in this practice. Should I now stop using bacon because a segment of the population feels that it is now “over?” That’s pure flummery! I would rather be forced to watch a marathon of Guy Fieri programming than ever temper my love of any cured pork product.

I don’t believe that truly delicious foods fall subject to trends. Foods that inspire intense emotional reactions in people can never be considered overrated, nor do I think any one person has the authority to declare them so. Blais is an incredibly talented chef with a real understanding of food, but I feel that he is missing the mark by throwing bacon under the bus. It’s an easy target, but tasty enough to weather the storm.