History Matters: How We Became Bonkers for Bacon

History Matters: How We Became Bonkers for Bacon

We may be bonkers for it, but bacon was no biggie for our ancestors. Learn how this humble pork product evolved from Great-great-grandma's breakfast fare to a gourmet chef's favorite food. 

 

If the 21st century to date had an official food, it would surely be bacon. Sales in the United States could have surpassed $4 billion annually, with restaurant bacon consumption up 25 percent. Even including people who follow dietary restrictions against pork, Americans average almost 18 pounds of bacon each per year. Bacon is now a flavor for everything from milkshakes to shaving cream.

But bacon hasn’t always been so beloved. Because pigs historically offered the cheapest source of meat, bacon was viewed as peasant fare. Shakespeare’s Henry IV disdains “bacon-fed knaves.” As recently as the 1850s, then-journalist Frederick Law Olmstead wrote that “the bane of my life” on a journey through the rural South was a constant diet of “corn bread and bacon.”

Among Americans of means, bacon was seasonal fare, consumed with tomatoes and salads. The Chicago Mercantile Exchange invented the pork belly futures contract in 1961 as a way for farmers to smooth out their seasonal sales. (Bacon’s newfound popularity led to the extinction of such futures in 2012.)

The story of bacon begins, of course, with the pig, which evolved in Southeast Asia about 2 million years ago. Early humans hunted wild boars, but those pigs’ sharp tusks and teeth made them dangerous game; beginning about 10000 BC, domesticating pigs proved much safer. The Chinese first preserved pork with salt around 1500 BC. Ancient Romans also had an early version of bacon, petaso, made from pork shoulder boiled with dried figs.

The great bacon breakthrough, however, was made accidentally when farmers in central Europe cured pork with salt from the area’s mines, which happened to be high in nitrate. That natural impurity breaks down into nitrite, which kills bacteria and gives bacon its pinkish color. In the Middle Ages, curing with salt and smoke was supplemented with saltpeter—potassium nitrate.

Bacon didn’t always refer to preserved pork belly, as it does in the United States today. (English bacon combines loin meat with the fatty adjacent pork belly, while Canadian bacon is all loin.) Originally, in fact, bacon may have derived from words for a pig’s back. As late as the 16th century, bacon simply meant pork, and in antebellum America the term was used for any dry-cured meat.

A recent survey found that 65 percent of Americans would favor designating bacon our national food. But pigs weren’t native to the New World, arriving only with Columbus, who brought eight pigs to Cuba at the suggestion of Queen Isabella. Hernando de Soto took pigs to the mainland, landing with 13 in Tampa Bay in 1539, a herd that had grown to 700 by his death in 1542. (Those that ran off became the ancestors of American “razorback” feral pigs.) The English brought pigs to their American colonies in the 1600s, with Sir Walter Raleigh sending sows to Jamestown in 1607.

On either side of the Atlantic, making bacon remained a mostly rural enterprise, with farmers taking their cured meats into town for sale. In England before the Industrial Revolution, however, even city dwellers kept pigs in their basements—a practice not outlawed until the 1930s. Pig owners would make their own bacon using the traditional “dry-cure” method: Pork would be cut and rubbed by hand with salt and other ingredients—each household boasting its own secret recipe—before being cured and then smoked. The process could take a month or more.

Slow dry-curing was ill-suited for mass production, though. In the 1770s, Englishman John Harris started a company in Caine, Wiltshire, that made bacon using a brine curing solution. The “Wiltshire cure” pioneered large-scale industrial bacon processing, and the area is still considered a bacon capital.

True mass production of bacon required mass quantities of pigs, which the American heartland was ideally suited to deliver. By the 1870s, Cincinnati was known as “Porkopolis,” and the meat-packing plants of Chicago were butchering more than a million pigs annually.

Chicago was home to Oscar and Gottfried Mayer, two brothers who came from Germany when Oscar was only 14. Quickly mastering the meat trade, they leased and turned around a failing meat plant. When the owner refused to renew their lease, thinking to profit from their success himself, the Mayers borrowed $10,000 and launched their own business in 1883.

The brothers decided to brand their products to differentiate them as higher quality, worth asking for by name. They originally called their meats “Edelweiss,” suggesting the heights and Alpine purity associated with that flower. After 13 years as Edelweiss, the company switched to “Oscar Mayer Approved Meat Products.” Among the new products to wear the “Oscar Mayer” label was bacon, which the company was the first in the United States to sell pre-sliced and pre-packaged, in 1924.

Another marketing innovation rescued bacon from the cereal craze taking over American breakfast tables in the 1920s. The new breed of white-collar workers had no need for the heavy, meaty breakfasts of the rural past. Enter Edward Bernays, another European immigrant. A nephew of Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, Bernays would become the “father of public relations.” In his seminal 1928 work, Propaganda, Bernays explained, “The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society.”

The Beech-Nut meat-packing company hired Bernays (who was Jewish and no bacon eater) to boost sales of bacon. With “conscious and intelligent manipulation” of public opinion, Bernays popularized the combination of “bacon and eggs” and brought bacon back to Americans’ breakfasts.

 

Bacon would remain largely limited to its partnerships with eggs and tomatoes, however, until the 1990s. Even for pork producers, fixated on the low-fat mantra of “the other white meat,” bacon was an afterthought. The 1992 introduction of Hardee’s fast-food Frisco Burger, topped with bacon, began to change that. Wendy’s debuted the Baconator and Burger King added bacon to the Whopper. Top chefs began using it in gourmet fare. By 2006, bacon prices had tripled and the National Pork Board chimed in with “Bacon makes it better.”

 

Timeline

  • 1493: Columbus brings the first pigs to the New World
  • 1660s: The British in Yorkshire and Tamworth breed pigs just for bacon
  • 1708: Poet Ebenezer Cook complains that almost every food in the American colonies contains bacon
  • 1770: John Harris introduces mass-produced, wet-cured bacon
  • 1924: Oscar Mayer sells America’s first pre-sliced, pre-packaged bacon
  • 1953: Pork falls behind beef in US meat consumption
  • 1978: Charles of the Ritz debuts its “I can bring home the bacon” commercial for Enjoli perfume
  • 2015: Boosted by a bacon boom, pork regains the top spot in US meat consumption

Bacon fun facts

  • Bacon grease was the primary cooking fat in most homes until World War I, when prepackaged lard became available. During World War II, cooks saved bacon fat for the war effort, for cooking and making explosives.
  • Bacon went into space aboard Apollo 7 in 1968, in the form of “bacon squares.” Apollo 8 astronaut Jim Lovell exclaimed, “Happiness is bacon squares for breakfast.”
  • In the 12th century, a church in Dunmow, England, offered a side of bacon to any husband who could swear that he hadn’t quarreled with his wife for a year and a day. 
 From the May/June 2017 Family Tree Magazine

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