Forget Mickey Rourke and Britney Spears. The biggest comeback story in recent years is bacon. Once a staple of American breakfast tables, cured, smoked pork bellies picked up a bad reputation back in the 1980s, amid concerns over saturated fat and cholesterol. Then the tide turned. Some credit low-carb fad diets, others a general backlash against puritanical food fears, but somewhere along the way bacon became cool again.
In fact, you could argue that America is now gripped by full-on baconmania. Scouting for new finds at the Fancy Food show in New York City in June, Ted Dombroski of Charleston specialty shop butcher Ted's Butcherblock turned up bacon chapstick and bacon maple lollipops. The mania is not limited to foods or even flavorings. The internet is awash in all sorts of bacon-themed crap: the bacon bra, the bacon tuxedo, bacon toilet paper, and bacon air freshener for your car.
Charleston has its share of novelty bacon treats, like the Bloody Bacon Martini at The Mill and Shine's chocolate-covered bacon sundae. But the curious thing is that, while they use bacon in an unusual context, they're both pretty damn good.
The Mill's martini starts with house-made bacon-infused vodka, which is shaken with bloody Mary mix and garnished with olives and — for good measure — some bacon crumbles. At first, bacon might not seem like a good blend for cocktails, but after a decade of syrupy sweet Cosmo concoctions, the smoky, meaty flavor of bacon is a welcome change. It makes for a rich, full-bodied drink, not quite enough for a meal, but almost.
Shine's chocolate-covered bacon sundae (pictured on the cover of this issue) proves that smoked pork is ideal for dessert, too. The hot fudge sundae is topped with a single long, wide strip of bacon enrobed in chocolate. You could just pick up the chocolate-covered rasher, scarf it down, then proceed to eat the ice cream underneath. But, the far more delightful approach is to smash the bacon into bits with your spoon and mix it all in, taking care to get a few bits of bacon with each bite of ice cream. The bacon's crisp texture contrasts pleasingly with the soft ice cream, while the salty, smoky flavor plays off perfectly against the sweetness of the dessert.
And that's bacon at its best — a subtle enhancer of textures and flavors, not some over-the-top exercise in extreme eating. (Unlike, say, the Wendy's Baconator, with its six strips of bacon atop a double cheeseburger.)
More and more local chefs and diners are returning to bacon, recognizing it as a fundamental part of our food culture. It's perfect for today's slow food sensibilities. It takes the ignoble pork belly (a "low-on-the-hog" meat, as John T. Edge puts it) and, through the art of curing, smoking, and aging, transforms it into something sublime.
Bacon's pedigree in Charleston cuisine is long and genuine. It's been at the heart of Lowcountry cooking for centuries — as essential a part of our region's foodways as rice itself. In her seminal 1847 cookbook The Carolina Housewife, Sarah Rutledge opens her recipe for "Carolina Pilau" with this simple instruction: "Boil one and a half pounds of bacon."
Rutledge also provides instructions for curing bacon and smoking bacon, but these days almost all (but not quite all) of the bacon around town is brought in from somewhere else. And the undisputed king of America's artisanal bacon is Allan Benton of Madisonville, Tenn.
Benton, a former high-school guidance counselor, bought a smokehouse in 1973 from Albert Hicks and spent the next 30 years perfecting the art of bacon. Industrial, store-bought bacon is fast-cured in a day or less: injected with watery brine, flash-smoked, and packaged for shipping. Benton makes his the way his grandfather did. He dry-rubs the pork bellies with a mixture of salt and brown sugar and lets them rest for almost six weeks, switching midway through from a 38-degree cooler to a 45-degree one and finally to an aging room. Then, they spend 48 hours in a smokehouse, with the smoke generated from an old wood-burning stove.
To the eye, the Benton's product looks pretty much like any thick-sliced bacon. To the mouth, however, it's completely unlike any bacon you've tasted before. Upon first bite there's a very strong salty hit, then you notice the chewiness of the meat, and finally there's a warm rush of hickory smokiness that lingers and lingers while you savor the whole bite.
John Fleer, the chef at the Blackberry Farm resort in Walland, Tenn., helped introduce Benton's bacon to chefs beyond the Smoky Mountains, including some in Charleston.
"It's simply the best I've ever had," says Sarah O'Kelley of The Glass Onion. "It melts in your mouth." O'Kelley and her partners, Chuck Vincent and Chris Stewart, order several slabs at a time straight from Benton, and they serve it in dozens of ways — on sandwiches, in braised cabbage, in pilaus. They also use bacon fat as a starter for any number of dishes. Its real starring role, though, is on The Glass Onion's po' boys, which are regulars on the brunch menu. Recent varieties include a BLT po boy — Benton's bacon with local Bibb lettuce and tomatoes — and the fried egg po' boy, with the bacon and egg topped with homemade sausage gravy and cheddar cheese.
Benton's bacon may be the top pig for the moment, but Sean Brock down at McCrady's is trying to give him a run for his money and bring traditional bacon production back to the Lowcountry. Brock, in fact, has long been one of Allan Benton's biggest fans. McCrady's was an early Charleston adopter of Benton's bacon, and Brock's use of it has ranged from traditional lardons to post-modern creations like spinning bacon fat with sugar in a cotton candy machine to create, yes, bacon-flavored cotton candy.
Brock has been to Madisonville and studied Benton's technique and style. Starting with pork bellies from pigs raised on McCrady's Wadmalaw Island farm, Brock uses Benton's cure formula: four parts salt to one part brown sugar, plus red and black pepper. He cold smokes the meat for days in a smokehouse built for him by fellow Wadmalaw farmer Shawn Thackeray.
Brock's bacon is unbelievable — rich, mellow, and smoky. But, he still gives the edge to the master, Allan Benton. "There's just something special about it," Brock says. "I can't quite figure out what he's doing different, but of course he's been doing it for more than 30 years." These days, both Brock's own bacon and Benton's share the bill on McCrady's menu, and they go through at least 20 pounds of Benton's stuff in two weeks.
Top-quality bacon is growing in popularity with home cooks, too. Typical supermarkets have at least one premium brand on the shelves. But, for the serious bacon lover, Ted's Butcherblock (334 East Bay St., downtown) is the source. Ted's has a half dozen brands of artisanal bacon in the display case at any time, with a rotating selection such as Eden Natural Applewood-smoked kurobuta bacon from Iowa, North Country's uncured bacon (marinated in maple syrup and smoked over fruitwood), and Benton's legendary bacon, too.
If you can't wait to get your bacon home, try the bacon-of-the-month on a BLT ($7) from Ted's café. It's an upscale sandwich served on a big ciabatta square with plum tomatoes, leaf lettuce, and garlic aioli. The rich and smoky artisanal bacon — like the Eden Natural kurobuta — takes a common sandwich and elevates it to a new level.
Ted's also has a Bacon of the Month Club, which ships members a pound of a different specialty bacon each month. Owner Ted Dombrowski says club memberships are selling briskly, and they were a hot Father's Day gift item back in June — which, one must admit, beats Old Spice hollow.
Bacon band-aids and bacon-flavored mints may be in their 15th minute of fame, but the real stuff — traditionally cured and slow-smoked by master artisans and even by local chefs themselves — seems destined for continued success. Bacon is a foundational element to traditional Lowcountry cooking, and, for dedicated eaters, its recent revival is cause for celebration. Perhaps a toast with a bacon martini is in order.