Don’t go bacon my heart
“Everything tastes better with bacon.” This oft-repeated mantra has led to the elevation of a simple breakfast staple to manic-level popularity. Not even strong evidence that bacon causes cancer can quell bacon sales.
No longer just an accompaniment to eggs, bacon can (and will) appear in every meal and every course, dessert included. But, as bacon’s popularity has increased, so has the over-reliance on the cured meat. Rather than being used to take good food to the next level, bacon has made mediocre food taste more like bacon.
Growing up in a moderately kosher home, bacon was never on the menu. While we didn’t separate milk and meat, nonkosher animals were strictly off-limits. With age, I have become more lax and my palate has expanded considerably, but I still haven’t developed a taste for bacon.
Fans will talk about the complex flavors—sweet, salty, umami—and textures. That complexity is why bacon has always been a key ingredient in traditional cooking. Flip through a pre-baconmania cookbook and it’s not surprising to see bacon listed as the first ingredient. Coq au vin and boeuf bourguignon both start by sautéing bacon and reserving the fat to cook the rest of the ingredients. The result is a hint of bacon that permeates the dish—the star is still the chicken or the beef, but the dishes are elevated by the smokiness of the bacon.
When bacon stops being the bridesmaid and wants to be the bride, it becomes a crutch. In the mid-to-late 2000s, bacon began appearing prominently on menus and the dishes that included bacon sold better. Suddenly, more dishes had bacon—even dishes that didn’t need it. Everyone was so swept up in the novelty of it all, they failed to recognize what had been lost along the way.
I love macaroni and cheese the way a lot of people love bacon. If I see mac ’n’ cheese on the menu, I almost always order it. Making a good one usually involves picking the right combination of high-quality cheese and pairing it with a sturdy pasta that holds up against the thick, creamy sauce. When bacon hit its peak, it became the ingredient to add to mac ’n’ cheese. After a while, instead of following everyone else who was ordering their mac ’n’ cheese with bacon, I had to start ordering mine without.
One evening, my dinner companion ordered mac ’n’ cheese with bacon, but I was not impressed. The cheese combination was bland; the pasta was overdone and mushy. It was as if the addition of bacon allowed the kitchen to stop trying.
Not just a crutch, bacon is also a gimmick. Pinterest is filled with recipes for bacon breakfast cups, bacon-wrapped everything, and pies with bacon lattice tops, to name a few. And who can forget Wendy’s commercials for the “Baconator”? Artisanal donut shops have been including candied bacon atop their wares for years, but Dunkin’ Donuts got in on the action for a limited time with the Deluxe Bacon Donut—an eclair-type donut topped with two strips of bacon. Not surprisingly, there are entire cookbooks devoted to cooking with bacon.
I'm not antibacon. I just think that bacon, like all things, has a time and place. It’s important to learn how to cook and how food comes together to make a good meal. Bacon can be a useful ingredient in the kitchen, but it shouldn’t always be the primary ingredient. A meal is more than just the sum of its parts. Relying on bacon to make food taste better will only lead to every meal tasting like, well, bacon.