Belly of the beast

So why do I cure my own bacon? Because it's fun, it's easy, and loving food is different than loving the food that you make.

Published July 8, 2008 10:08AM (EDT)

I was late for work this morning because I was making bacon. I don't mean the frying-it-up-in-a-pan kind of way. I don't mean in the broiling it kind of way. Or even the nuking it kind of way.

I mean that I was delayed because it had been two days since I had put my Red Wattle pig belly in its cure of salt and maple sugar, and that meant I had to turn it over in its pan and add the maple syrup.

These days, I cure my own meat. Well, to be fair, it's really my boyfriend, into whose apartment I have recently moved, who cures his own meats. His interest in this enterprise developed in the late fall, soon after I met him. Before me, there had also been an extensive flirtation with duck confit, a dalliance that explains the surprising number of duck carcasses in our freezer. But as our relationship heated up, so did his commitment to the saliferous preservation of meat -- specifically as pancetta (pig belly that has been cured with savory spices, rolled and air dried), guanciale (pork jowl similarly cured and hung to dry) and duck prosciutto (a magret of duck briefly salted and dried).

For most of this food foray, I merely looked on as he measured ingredients and hung the pastured, heritage-breed pork belly that he'd ordered from the Internet from the window of his Brooklyn apartment. I helped here and there: offering a pour of kosher salt, digging the brown sugar out of the cupboard, crushing some juniper berries under the flat, heavy blade of a knife, massaging the cure into the fatty crevices of the bellies, rinsing them and patting them dry before he expertly rolled and tied them.

But around the time we cured and hung our third pancetta, I was perusing Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn's "Charcuterie," a book it's fair to say I never expected to curl up with. There, directly between "Hot-Smoked Duck Ham" and "Ham Hocks," I saw the recipe for maple-cured bacon. A week later, we had a heritage breed Berkshire pig belly, and it was I who was at the scale, a long stream of organic Grade A amber liquid hitting a bowl piled with salt and brown sugar.

In some ways, perhaps, this has been my destiny.

It's not like I was ever one of those New York women who store sweaters in their oven and don't know how to grill a chop. I love to eat, I love to cook, and I love to pack in the supplies for blizzards that will likely never come. My interest in food preparation was born long before I met my boyfriend, long before I ever heard of Alice Waters or Michael Pollan, and long before the pig-obsessed exertions of Mario Batali and Bill Buford changed the way we thought about salumi. I imagine I was set on this path on an evening sometime around 1978, when my father read these words to me: "That day Pa and Ma and Laura and Mary had fresh venison for dinner. It was so good that Laura wished they could eat it all. But most of the meat must be salted and smoked and packed away to be eaten in the winter.”

I hung on every line of Laura Ingalls Wilder's pioneer food porn: the way the little house in the big woods was stocked to bursting with enough smoked deer meat and yellow cheese and salted fish and pumpkins and squash and onions to feed a family of five (plus Jack the dog and Black Susan the cat) through the long cold Wisconsin winter.

In "Little House in the Big Woods," Pa also owned a pig. "It ran wild in the Big Woods, living on acorns and nuts and roots." Of course, the brief but happy life of Pa's pig was 130 years before localists, seasonalists and scientists would tout the possibility that pigs allowed to live and eat just like this might contain heart-healthy (if still mightily caloric) Omega-3 fats rather than just the artery-clogging stuff. The Ingalls' specimen of porcine perfection got slaughtered, boiled, scraped, gutted and hung to cool. "There were hams and shoulders, side meat and spare-ribs and belly. There was the heart and the liver and the tongue, and the head to be made into headcheese, and the dish-pan full of bits to be made into sausage." Every morsel of meat was sprinkled with salt, the hams and shoulders put into pickling brine and then smoked, the lard cooked and stored, the cracklings used to flavor johnnycake, the skinned tail roasted over hot coals as a special treat of sweet meat, and even the pig's bladder inflated and used as a toy for the girls.

The "Little House" tableau of harvest-time abundance meshed with my own childhood summers spent visiting the Northern Maine potato farm where my mother grew up. There, I watched as my grandmother canned tomatoes and wax beans and pickled beets and crab apples and made wild strawberry jam and froze brook trout to fry in cornmeal for breakfasts through the whole snowy winter.

From the "Charcuterie" book that I have hunched over again and again in recent months, I learn the history of these practices, and am reminded of the fact that, for example, my favorite sandwich, a Reuben, is constructed of three preserved foods: the brined corned beef, the pickled cabbage sauerkraut and cheese. Andean peoples were freezing potatoes thousands of years ago; Egyptians used salt to preserve their food as well as their mummies; according to Ruhlman and Polcyn, they "may have been the first to take the hard, bitter fruit of an olive tree and soak it in saltwater to make that fruit not only edible, but delicious"; Celts invented preserved pig -- ham smoked over beech and juniper branches.

Of course, the reason Ma Ingalls made headcheese and my grandmother made crisp pickles out of green beans had to do with a need to preserve the edibility and nutrition of foods in which freshness is fleeting, and not the trendy theatrics of a salumi tray or a dilly bean hanging out of a Bloody Mary at brunch.

Here in 21st century Brooklyn, we have not only refrigeration, but 24-hour supermarkets and bodegas and a Fairway market full of produce all year round. Also, we have pizza and Thai food and sushi flown overnight from Japan's fish market. I can buy beautifully made, wholesome, responsibly prepared local food. If I didn't have a freezerful of preserved pork products, I could run literally two blocks down to a store that has not only pancetta, but also heritage pancetta, grass-fed pork guanciale, and mozzarella that's still warm from being shaped in hot water by the old man who's been doing it his whole life in the back room.

So why am I curing my own bacon?

Well, for one thing, it's fun. And not surprisingly, given my personal history with food, I fell for a guy who, when he says he's going to make soup, takes out one of the 12 kinds of homemade stock he has frozen, and when he says he's going to make burgers, starts considering what kind of bun he'll bake for them. My favorite Ziploc in the freezer reads "very salty piglet gravy." There is very little in the home we now share that is not made from scratch, and in turn, very little that is not carefully considered, prepared, enjoyed, savored and respected.

This is a welcome change, since despite my interest in cooking and keeping a full pantry, the truth is that when I recently cleaned out my apartment, where I had spent five happy years on my own, my freezer had six half-eaten boxes of artichoke ravioli from the local Italian establishment and a pack of cigarettes left over from before I quit smoking a year earlier.

But one of the things I've learned is that loving food is very different from loving the food that you make.

In the past year, I have learned to love pig. Not in the way that I always have -- a good chop with vinegary red cabbage and apple, or a pork bun at Momofuku, or a bacon egg and cheese -- but loving the pig, an animal so large and tasty that it reminds me of the old anti-vegetarian joke about how if god didn't want us to eat animals, he shouldn't have made them out of meat.

The bellies ordered through the Heritage Foods Web site (they have a helpful "pork schedule" that tells you when their participating farms plan to slaughter a pig, so you can choose the breed and the farm you want to order from) arrive in the mail. They're huge! And fascinating. In all my years of hoovering bacon at breakfast, I'd never really considered which part of the animal produced the tasty strips. But the first time I beheld our first 2-foot Berkshire belly lying on the wooden sideboard, I noticed the way the end cross section looked … just like bacon! It was like when your eyes come into focus and you pick out the shape of a fossilized snail in a rock at the beach. That's what that is!

I have also learned to pay attention to the provenance of the pig. I had for a long time tried to eat at places that served as much organic, local, seasonal food as possible. But there's a difference between ordering a dish that has "Niman Ranch" in the description and holding in your paws the 10-pound belly of a hog. When you hold an animal's insides in your hands, big and fresh and smelling of nothing but flesh and fat, you feel a certain responsibility to put them to good use.

And so I'm learning how to do that. It's actually incredibly easy, once you've got your belly. There are only a handful of ingredients, and no special tools required. I use organic brown sugar and maple sugar and maple syrup; I use good salt. I wish I didn't have to use the pink nitrate salt, but it's the only thing that truly keeps the fear of botulism at bay. Bacon doesn't have to hang in the window and so doesn't require the perfect temperature and humidity (50-60 degrees, 60 percent humidity) that the pancetta and guanciale did, making them winter-only treats. It simply cures in the refrigerator for seven to nine days, getting turned and rubbed and slathered every morning for evenness. Since we are without a good hot smoker here in New York City, I use an alternate method recommended by Ruhlman and Polcyn: After the meat has been properly cured, I roast it whole in a 200 degree oven for several hours, until it's cooked evenly and the fat on the top side of the long piece of meat gets smooth and slippery. Once it cools, the bacon gets sliced as thin as possible.

And that's it. I've made bacon.

The stuff walks out of the kitchen much faster than the other cured meats, because unlike pancetta or guanciale, which get used sparsely to flavor pastas and stews and salads, bacon gets gobbled qua bacon. The strips get thrown into a frying pan and sizzle up -- shrinking much less than any bacon I've ever bought in the store. They taste sweet and slick with fat that certainly isn't shaping my waistline, but which I feel OK consuming, in part because I choose to believe the hype about Omega-3's, in part because I do feel better eating animals that I believe have lived and died humanely, and in part because in the course of a couple of weeks, I feel like I've gotten to know this meat, through all the poking and massaging and examining of it.

I understand it's all self-justifying and over-imaginative fantasy to excuse my gluttonous consumption of pork -- pork that, incidentally, is far more expensive than store-bought. A belly costs around $8 a pound, way more than commercial bacon. This is precisely the kind of class divide Michael Pollan has chronicled, where those of us who can afford to have heritage pig bellies shipped to our airy Brooklyn apartments will reap nutritional and health benefits unavailable to those who can only afford to get their bacon via an Egg McMuffin.

So all the delusions about the purity of my pork don't succeed in making me feel truly virtuous about consuming the meat of a creature I have not been brave or skilled enough to dispatch myself. The one thing that does seem to be true is that by purchasing meat from farmers who raise heritage breeds and treat their animals well -- giving them a happy life and as happy an end as is possible -- we create the market and the economy to keep more of those farmers in business.

More than that, in the case of some of the rarer breeds of heritage pigs -- the Choctaw and Gloucestershire Old Spots, the Guinea Hog and Mulefoot and Red Wattle and the Ossabaw Island and the Large Black, all listed as critically endangered by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy -- by eating them, we're allowing farmers to be able to continue to afford to breed them, thereby helping to ensure their survival. Or at least that's what I tell myself when I'm submerging one of their bellies in its salty maple bath.

There is something else: how good this stuff tastes. I will confess that one morning, while tending to my bacon, I was curious about what the raw pork -- with a little syrup and a lot of salt -- might taste like. So I licked one of my fingers. It tasted clean and sweet and unctuous, like animal fat in salt and maple syrup. I didn't worry for a second that it would make me sick.

When we got our most recent Red Wattle belly, the one that I was late to work for, and that just last night was slow roasted to slick perfection and is in the refrigerator awaiting slicing, my swain trimmed some of its still untouched meat and threw it in a hot cast-iron skillet, no salt, no seasoning, no oil. Just pig and heat. The flavor was so remarkable, like the most delicious steak, made of pork, you could possibly imagine. Rich, flavorful, juicy, tender, fat caramelized around the edges. We looked at each other as we snacked on the meat. He quickly sliced another couple of bites off of the belly and fried them up again. This time we sprinkled on sea salt and some of the maple sugar we were about to use for the cure.

All I can tell you is that if you can, try some pork belly -- cooking it, curing it, enjoying it. I'll be in Brooklyn, learning how to make sausage.

By Rebecca Traister

Rebecca Traister writes for Salon. She is the author of "Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women" (Free Press). Follow @rtraister on Twitter.

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