Bacon Food history Musings

Food for Thought: BACON!

“Ok class,” I said, as I plugged in my laptop, and fired up the projector, “today we’re going to be talking about economic unrest in the Colonial era, looking specifically at Bacon’s Rebellion.”

As students shuffled their bags under their desks, and opened their computers, I pointed at a raised hand in the back of the class, hoping for an early, thought-provoking question.

“Mr. Murph,” the student said, his hand still raised, “is this dude responsible for naming bacon after himself?”

I must have looked as dumbfounded as I felt, because after a surprised silence, the remainder of the class started in with titters of surprised laughter.

“No,” I paused to think. “At least I don’t think so. I think the word bacon has been around for a long time.”

“Oh,” he said, looking dejected. “just think it would be badass to be the guy who named bacon.

“Why’s that?” I asked, with genuine curiosity.

“Well, bacon is pretty awesome,” he mused. “So in order to name bacon after yourself, you’d probably have to be pretty awesome.”

“Fair enough.” I said. “Well, I don’t think it’s this guy, but I can tell you that he did think a lot of himself, as you’ll see in a few minutes, right after you jot down your homework.”

An artist’s rendering of Bacon’s Rebellion, complete with fire in the background, possibly for cooking bacon.

The students gave a low laugh again, this time at my awkward transition into the lesson. But as I moved into my first few slides, I kept thinking about bacon.

Bacon IS awesome. Where DID the name come from? Was it a specific person? Why haven’t I researched this before?

A short history of the best food in the world:

It turns out that the etymology of “bacon” is widely debated. Bacon is an English language word, but like many English words, it has a complicated history.

When I talk about bacon – which I do, frequently – I’m referring to salt-cured and smoked meat and fat from the belly of a pig. As we’re all aware, it usually comes pre-sliced, and has a healthy (not really though) ratio of meat to fat: about 50-50. It can be either wet or dry cured, and is usually smoked.

Pork Belly Bacon – Look at all that delicious fat!

The word “bacon” probably comes from the Old English word “bacoun,” which historians generally agree is used to refer to all salt-cured pork products. “Bacoun” itself is possibly derived from one of a few French or Germanic words: the French “bako”, the Germanic “bahho” or “bakko,” and/or the Teutonic (a 2nd-century Germanic tribe) “backe,” all of which refer to the back. This probably means that “bacon” has historically been cut from the back of the hog, where the meat includes both the loin and a portion of the fatty upper belly. This product is commonly referred to as “back bacon”, and is the most common cut in both Britain and Ireland (were it’s called “bacon”), where slices are sold as “rashers”. It also makes sense that the fatty belly would be preserved and used as cooking fats, rather than consumed outright as bacon (as we know it).

Back bacon rashers. Notice the leaner slice of loin, and the small section of fatty belly at the bottom.

Likewise, it makes sense that the popularity of pork products – especially bacon – would persist throughout the centuries. Wild hogs were originally indigenous to Eurasia, but they were spread the world over through the process of human migration. A species of pig was most likely first domesticated from wild hogs in the area of the Tigris river valley around 13,000 BCE. The rest is delicious history.

Pigs have followed their associated human populations around the world for the past 15,000 years. By 5,000 BCE, pigs were the most common domesticated animal in China. Eurasian migrations spread different breeds across the continent, and as far as Africa. Voyages of exploration saw the exportation of swine to “newly discovered lands”, like the Americans and Oceania, where the ever-adaptive, omnivorous species were traded, and in some cases became invasive (like in Hawaii and Samoa). A major commodity, pigs and other livestock were transported live, as butchered meat was more likely to go bad on a voyage of unknown length. Christopher Columbus brought live pigs with him on each of his voyages, introducing them to the Islands of the Caribbean. North American settlers brought their staple food animal with them, in some cases letting the population literally run wild: subsequent feral generations of pigs introduced to the Island of Manhattan plagued the streets of Ney York city until the early 1800’s. During industrialization, British citizens were known to keep pigs in their homes, and until the practice was outlawed in the 1930’s, city-dwelling Englanders had taken to housing domesticated swine in their basements.

All of this points to one common idea: the value of pigs as a source of food. In a pre-refrigeration world, it stands to reason that butchered pork would have been salted or smoked; those are two of the common food preservation techniques. The process of curing and smoking bacon, and then cooking it, is scientifically proven to release compounds known as furans, aldehydes, and ketones, which – in combination – give the product that sweet, fatty, buttery, umami flavor that generations of humanity have come to know and love. In addition, pork is protein rich, and fatty.

In other words, it’s delicious.

So there you have it, a quick history of bacon, with some fun facts thrown in. As you ponder all that you’ve learned here today, why not check out a few of my favorite bacon-inspired (below), or for some further reading, check out my reference links at the bottom of the page!

Yup

Bacon-heavy recipes from lovefoodandbeer.com:

Links and Outside Reading:

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