Bacon mania

Why are Americans so batty for bacon? It's delicious, it's decadent -- and it's also a fashion statement.

Published July 7, 2008 10:36AM (EDT)

I stumbled across an Internet link several months ago that made me gasp. At a time when Amy Winehouse implodes via RSS feed and Mini Me has a sex tape, genuine surprise is as hard to come by as affordable gas. But this link was fascinating and repellent at once. Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to introduce: the bacon bra.

The bacon bra did its little cha-cha around the interweb for a good week last April, sparking debate about everything from the offensiveness of a naked woman covered in raw meat to the bra's functionality -- which, let's face it, exists in that vast flyover between a Maidenform underwire and, umm, whipped cream. But what struck me most about the reactions, whether from online commenters or my own friends, was how they were shot through with a childlike giddiness that sounded something like this: "Ohmygod, baaaaacon."

Anthony Bourdain has called bacon the "gateway protein" for its astounding ability to lure vegetarians back to the carnivorous fold, and for me, the bacon bra proved something of a gateway as well. It was through links to the bacon bra that I stumbled into a zany online world of bacon-related wackiness. Bacon clothing, bacon accessories, bacon jewelry, bacon toilet paper. The vegans may get their own bestselling cookbook, the yuppies may get their raw organic walnut oil at Whole Foods, but carnivores have turned bacon into something more than mere food; it has become a fashion statement. Leapfrogging from link to link -- bacon gift wrap, bacon tote bags -- I felt like a weary traveler standing on the jagged edge of the Grand Canyon for the first time, staring into its vast, unfathomable abyss; I mean, I knew this existed, but I didn't know it was soooo huge.

Part of this enthusiasm comes from the fact that, as one hit man told another in "Pulp Fiction," "bacon tastes gooood." Or, to put a finer point on it: "Bacon has the perfect balance of sweet, salty, smoky flavor, and the perfect balance of meaty and crispy texture," says James Villa, the author of "The Bacon Cookbook." "It's the most perfect food ever created by the gods."

But triple crème brie is pretty tasty too, and I don't remember seeing that on any Chuck Taylors.

I spoke with several experts about this bacon fixation and cooked up a few explanations for our exuberance. After all, how do we come to exalt a food so much that it is not enough to merely eat it -- but we also feel an urge to wrap ourselves in its likeness and scream our adoration from our Facebook profile? The following bacon theories should be taken with a grain of salt. (Better yet, a nice, crisp rasher.)

1. Bacon is rebellion

Americans have a guilty relationship with food, and perhaps no food is more guilt-inducing than bacon -- forbidden by religions, disdained by dietitians and doctors. Loving bacon is like shoving a middle finger in the face of all that is healthy and holy while an unfiltered cigarette smolders between your lips.

We live in a time when even a casual trip to the market is fraught with anxiety. Is it OK to buy the salmon? What are the food miles on this red delicious apple? And there is something comfortingly unambiguous about a thick slab of bacon. It's bad for you. It tastes fantastic. Any questions?

As Dan Philips says, "Death to all food and wine rules. Down with the health establishment. Bacon is the ultimate expression of freedom." Philips -- aka Captain Bacon -- is the founder of Grateful Palate, a company whose popular Bacon of the Month Club and cheeky assorted gift items -- from T-shirts to bacon air freshener to bacon candles -- has probably done more for the bacon chic movement than anything else.

John T. Edge, author and director of the Southern Foodways Alliance, says, "Bacon is a sort of 21st century tattoo, a marker that declares the wearer to be a badass, unbeholden to convention."

(Oh, and bacon is, in some cases, also literally a tattoo.)

It's telling that, among the many celebrity chefs who have embraced bacon (Paula Deen, Bobby Flay, Emeril Lagasse), it is Anthony Bourdain who has become its most unabashed spokesperson. A cocktail-swilling, cock-slinging adventurer who disdains cliché, Bourdain is the poster boy for macho hedonism.

You can hear a kind of growling swagger in the introduction to Susan Bourette's "Meat: A Love Story," in which she writes about a spike in carnivore culture: "It's like a bitch-slap to all those reedy, high-minded herbivores who demanded nothing short of a bloodless revolution, dictating the parameters of the discussion, decreeing the rules for years."

"Bacon is the cocaine of the '00s," says author Sarah Katherine Lewis, "a visible sign of decadent rebellion."

2. Bacon is sexy

Sarah Katherine Lewis recently wrote a book called "Sex and Bacon: Why I Love Things That Are Very, Very Bad for Me." It's a series of funny, outré personal essays, with a title meant to transmit a kind of wanton lustiness. Bacon is the perfect food with which to do so. "Sex and Lamb Patties," after all, doesn't quite have the frisson.

To love bacon is to sink your teeth into life, to refuse to nibble at the side salad or sip on the seltzer with a twist of lime. "Nobody wants to be wholesome, boring Betty when they could be sexy, hot-to-trot Veronica," Sarah Katherine Lewis says. "Pour me a drink, light me a smoke, fry me up a pan of bacon, and let's get it on."

A recent Taco Bell commercial has played up this idea of bacon as an aphrodisiac. In order to lure male attention at a bar, a woman hides the new Bacon Club Chalupa in her purse. It's absurd; no one with hair that glossy would suffer the indignity of diced chicken in her handbag. But the spot has prompted at least one male viewer to suggest bacon perfume. And why not? It's probably a more seductive scent than lilacs and roses.

"Bacon is sex in a skillet," says Dan Philips of the Grateful Palate. "It's the ultimate aphrodisiac for all living things. Except pigs, of course."

3. Bacon is kitsch

Of course, bacon may be rebellious and sexy, but no one is really slaying hearts in the bacon costume. Bacon is silly, too. And there is a smug irony to be had in embracing such a blue-collar breakfast meat. On the site for Archie McPhee, an online novelty store, the top-selling bacon items are bacon bandages, gummy bacon and the classic bacon wallet. (They sit proudly in the top 50 items beside the corn-dog air freshener and the yodeling pickle.) The bacon chic movement is as much about a tongue-in-cheek goofiness as it is about stiff-arming the food police. In fact, it is about doing both at once. (Maybe the perfect illustration of this is Wendy's Baconator commercials, in which bacon is a rock star.)

"Bacon is delicious and irresistible, but also can be perceived as gross. Wearing the image of bacon on the body intensifies that duality," says Sasha Wizansky, former Salon staffer and co-founder and art director of the San Francisco-based Meatpaper, an art magazine devoted to animal flesh, which is in itself a highbrow example of this ironic stance.

A less sophisticated example? Barney's sells bacon-and-egg cuff links for $300. That's like a trucker cap for button-down goofballs.

4. Bacon is an Internet joke

A friend of mine recently remarked, "If someone is wearing a bacon scarf, chances are that person has a blog."

Blogger Sadie Fox, who also goes by the name Miss Cellania, wrote about the online bacon bonanza in a post for Mental Floss last summer. She dates the burgeoning phenomenon back to September 2006, when blogger John Scalzi momentarily captivated the blogosphere by taping bacon to his cat. If there is a better example of the sublime pointlessness of Internet memes, I cannot think of one. Oh, wait: Yes I can.

The Internet does for a trend what lighter fluid does for a tiny, flickering flame. So, if someone is taping bacon to his cat, then it only stands to reason there is a bacon flow chart and a bacon Stonehenge and bacon robots. Someone has posted a video to teach you to say "bacon" in sign language. There are dozens of bacon Facebook groups. There are, naturally, bacon blogs, including I Heart Bacon and Bacon Unwrapped, which recently celebrated its third anniversary.

Heather Lauer began Bacon Unwrapped as a joke, but she says, "I started to realize there is something about bacon that gets people incredibly excited, and that was fascinating to me." She recently completed a cross-country bacon tour of America, and still updates her site with the latest in bacon oddities -- chocolate-covered bacon, for example, or a bacon cocktail contest.

This is catnip for kook-seeking sites like Digg and Metafilter, or bloggers scrambling to fill a 10-post-a-day quota, and it's not uncommon to find the same zany links showing up again and again. Take, for example, the jaw-dropping, truly awe-inspiring bacon tux (it's scented!). Archie McPhee put it out as an April Fools' joke in 2006; I discovered it on BuzzFeed a couple of months ago.

All of this creates a wink-wink atmosphere among the Web community, a group of people who have been known to enjoy an inside joke. "People now wear bacon like it's a mark of status or tribal membership," says Leitha Matz, a New York writer who blogs under the name Miss Ginsu and has garnered online attention for making her own bacon cake and bacon ice cream.

But when is that proverbial shark jumped? When does this become less a celebration of bacon and more like a degradation of it? Recently, a blogger wrote of her attempt to make bacon vodka. The result? It made her hurl.

5. Bacon is a crafting trend, and not just for carnivores

Of course, it's not the Gap and Forever 21 who are selling bacon fashion products. It's online manufacturers, many of whom sell their own handmade wares through collectives like the crafting superstore Etsy. Mandy Jouan at Sappy Moose Tree sells bacon Christmas ornaments and a bacon fridge magnet and places bacon among those nostalgia-quirk items you often see clogging a craft fair -- "like owls and unicorns and skulls."

She also adds that, "Vegetarians and vegans have told me they love my bacon magnets." Which reminds me that the latest top-seller on Archie McPhee is the Mr. Bacon vs. Monsieur Tofu action figures. Which also reminds me that in my next life, I want to invent toys for Archie McPhee.

6. Bacon is funny

There was a "Simpsons" episode -- there is always a "Simpsons" episode -- in which Homer is ordering at a restaurant. "I'll have the smiley face breakfast special. Uhh, but could you add a bacon nose? Plus bacon hair, bacon mustache, five o'clock shadow made of bacon bits and a bacon body."

The waitress is all bored sarcasm. "How about I just shove a pig down your throat?"

Now THAT gets Homer really excited.

"I was kidding," she replies.

"Fine, but the bacon man lives in a bacon house!"

The thing is, bacon makes people smile. Bacon taps into that unsophisticated part of our brains, our inner Homer Simpson -- the childhood mind untutored by such oppressive adult realities as fat or cholesterol or moral/ethical dilemmas.

"We are living in serious times," says Bacon Unwrapped's Heather Lauer. "And when you walk down the sidewalk wearing a bacon scarf, you know that you are going to get a few laughs."

"Who can't love a bacon with a little smiley face on it?" asks Mandy at Sappy Moose. "I honestly don't know!"

"It's like ninjas or pirates," says David Wahl, marketing director of Archie McPhee. Actually, it's more like: Ohmygod, baaaacon.

7. Bacon is America

The turkey is the unofficial mascot of Americana, the 20-pound plumper we dutifully cook on our most sacred of national holidays. But really, it should be the pig. Bacon is our national meat. The pig is not an elegant animal, but it is smart and resourceful and fated to wallow in mud. A scavenger. A real scrapper.

"I see bacon as a celebration of an American birthright," says John T. Edge. "Four slices of Hormel Black Label, hissing in a cast iron skillet on a Sunday morning. To wear the bacon colors, to sport a bacon tattoo, is to announce your belief in the possibilities of bacon, in the American goodness rendered by a low-on-the-hog meat, transmogrified by smoke and salt."

By Sarah Hepola

Sarah Hepola is the author of the New York Times bestselling memoir, "Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget."

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