Bacon Tourism: From the Davos of Bacon to Bacon Mecca
CNBC.com News Editor
America's love for bacon has reached a fever pitch in the past few years and now, this bacon mania has spawned a new trend: Bacon tourism. You can pretty much eat your way across America all year long, from one sizzling bacon festival to another!
One of the most famous festivals is the Blue Ribbon Bacon Festivalin Iowa, which is the top pork-producing state in the U.S., carries 29 percent of the U.S. market share and has six times the number of pigs as people. Now in its sixth year, the festival has grown from a small gathering of bacon-loving friends at a cabin in northwest Iowa to a mega-festival: More than 10,000 bacon enthusiasts are expected to attend the next one in April 2013 and consume more than 12,000 pounds of bacon!
The festival features 10 different types of bacon, plus all things bacon — bacon sausage, bacon meatballs, bacon doughnuts, bacon butterscotch cupcakes — even a walking slab of bacon! There’s a bacon-eating contest, bacon lectures and a bacon song contest — and yes, there’s a crowning of the Bacon Queen! Contestants are asked questions like their favorite memory of bacon, their favorite kind of bacon and their favorite way to cook bacon (the most common answer is “naked,” incidentally).
“We have people come from 30 different states!” said Brooks Reynolds, chairman of the Iowa Bacon Board and one of the co-founders of the Blue Ribbon Bacon Festival. “People know it’s a good time, that they’ll enjoy some great high-quality bacon and taste things they’ve never tasted before,” he said. “In Iowa, we raise the most hogs and have some of the best artisanal bacon around.”
If you’re still wondering why you would travel to Iowa for bacon, four words: bacon-wrapped tater tots. Served at the High Life Loungein Des Moines, the tots are stuffed with a jalapeno pepper, wrapped in bacon, fried and topped with cheddar-jack cheese. And at the Iowa State Fair, they’ve got a Bacon-on-a-Stick stand — a 3/8-inch thick piece of applewood smoked bacon that can be dipped in chocolate or maple syrup.
“I have indeed traveled for bacon many times!” Lauer said. “My favorite part of writing the book was the 10 days I spent driving through rural Kentucky, Missouri, Iowa and Minnesota, meeting with bacon curers and hog farmers.”
They “gladly gave me tours of their facilities, whether it was a small brick building in a backyard where the family has been curing bacon for a century or a major facility with state-of-the-art equipment,” Lauer said. “Most people wouldn’t think of spending their vacation time driving through this part of the United States, but any serious bacon aficionado should consider the pilgrimage!”
If you’re going to do a bacon road trip, though, Lauer has a tip: Bring a lot of coolers!
“I had to buy more coolers along the way to store all the bacon I had purchased — I just couldn’t resist stocking up at each stop because the bacon was so good,” Lauer said, adding: “The most important feature of the hotel rooms along the way was whether or not they had a refrigerator!”
One of Lauer’s favorite types of bacon: wild boar bacon.
Did you even know there was such a thing?!
“Wild boar bacon has all of the attributes that make bacon so popular — salty and sweet flavors absorbed by a perfect balance of meat and fat. It also has a certain gaminess to it that appeals to some deep primal instinct,” Lauer writes in “Bacon: A Love Story.”
“The worst thing about wild boar bacon is that it comes pretty close to ruining all other bacons for anyone who tries it — this stuff is amazing, and it’s unfortunate that it’s not more widely available,” Lauer writes.
She favors D’Artagnan wild boar bacon when she makes bacon-wrapped tots at home.
For those bacon lovers who can’t wait until next April for the Iowa festival, the Blue Ribbon festival is going on tour this summer, hitting Keystone, Colo., June 22-24; Reykjavik, Iceland August 22 to 27; and Charlotte, N.C. on September 22.
North Carolina — that makes sense. They’re the second-largest pork-producing state after Iowa, with 14 percent of the market share. But, um, Iceland?
Brooks Reynolds, one of the founders of the Blue Ribbon Bacon Festival who is a commercial insurance broker but prefers the title Chairman of the Iowa Bacon Board, said he and his bacon-loving co-founders have a few friends in Reykjavik and decided to take their festival there. It was a little less grand than the Iowa festival the first time they did it.
“We did it kind of like a flash-mob festival,” Reynolds said. “We got there Friday morning and by the afternoon, we were grilling in downtown Reykjavik in the street, serving up 100 pounds of bacon and 10 cases of Viking beer!”
In Iceland, the bacon is slightly different — it’s very thin and cooked like a rasher, English-style — so it’s more rare and not as crisp as American-style bacon. Also, the cure isn’t as strong because they don’t have a lot of fruit wood like applewood or cherrywood to smoke it with.
“There aren’t a lot of hogs in Iceland!” Reynolds said, but added that he had one of the craziest bacon things he ever ate in Iceland — bacon-wrapped whale! He said the whale was pretty good — not a lot of blubber, as you might expect, but rather straight meat like swordfish or tuna steak.
Reynolds and his other Blue Ribbon co-founders were so inspired by their porcine adventures in Iceland, they’ve decided this year’s Blue Ribbon Bacon Festival in Iowa will have a Viking theme.
The key to bacon’s appeal is that it can be used so many ways, Reynolds said, though he admits, his favorite way to eat bacon is a BLT made by his mom with backyard tomatoes and one of his dad’s famous chocolate malts.
“People seem to come back to bacon,” Reynolds said. “A few vegetarians I know will make a one-day exception for it during the Blue Ribbon Bacon Festival,” he said.
“It’s just a fun thing to eat that brings a lot of people back to their childhood of having their parents or grandparents cook it up for them for a special meal,” he said. “My father griddles up a pound of bacon and then cooks Swedish pancakes in the grease.”
If all this bacon talk is making you hungry, you can travel for the bacon — or wait for it to come to you. Here are a sampling of some of America’s porcine celebrations:
BaconFest Milwaukee(February). They go whole hog in Milwaukee, holding their BaconFest at the Harley-Davidson Museum. Features bacon cooking demos, bacon products and all kinds of bacon eating. Vroom vroom!
BaconFest Atlanta (March). This one-day festival at Dad’s Garagetheater features “three of the essential B’s” — beers, bands and bacon! Three types of passes for this festival at graduating price points: portioned porking, bottomless bacon and whole hog!
Hormel Bacon Takedown Tour (March to October). Hormel is doing a nationwide Bacon Takedown Tour, where 20 local chefs accept the challenge of cooking recipes with Hormel Black Label bacon for 200 to 300 people. Here’s the schedule: Austin (March 11), Denver (April 22), Boston (June 24), San Francisco (July 15), Chicago (Sept. 16), Brooklyn (Oct. 14). Past bacon delicacies include bacon wontons, nacho bacon and pineapple bacon bombs. Oh, it’s on!
Boston Bacon Beer Festival (April). Features all kinds of crazy bacon creations including pretzel-coated bacon, bacon cotton candy, caramel bacon popsicles, bacon guacamole, pork belly pissaladiera, lamb bacon, beer-braised bacon meatballs, bacon cheesecake and a bacon ice cream float with bacon jimmies. Plus, a bacon and beer harbor cruise and a bacon- and beer-inspired art show.
BaconFest Chicago (April). This festival is a more upscale, white-tablecloth event, featuring bacon-infused dishes such as bacon-chile gulab jamun topped with bacon-pistachio brittle, bacon beignets and New Orleans-style sweet cayenne bacon bread pudding with coconut praline sauce, topped with sweet cayenne bacon crumbles, and bacon kimchi mortadella with pickle aioli and bacon tater tots.
Blue Ribbon Bacon Tour, Keystone, Colorado (June). Features a four-course bacon dinner at Wolf Rock Restaurant in the River Run Village in Keystone. Then there are two bacon-filled days with live music; bacon samplings; a large variety of bacon-themed menu items, including bacon pizza, bacon crepes, bacon soba noodles and bacon chocolate; bacon-themed lectures; and more.
Zingerman’s Camp Bacon (June). Billed as the “Davos of Bacon,” this four-day bacon camp at Zingerman’s Roadhouse in Ann Arbor, Mich., features a Bacon Ball and presentations on everything from sustainable hog farming and pork curing to bacon history in Hungary, bacon eating and cooking in Asia, and “Hog Raising in the Middle East Before Mohammed.” Davos, indeed!
BaconFest KC (August). Kansas City whoops it up for bacon with a bacon-eating contest, the best bacon recipe contest and the best bacon/pork-themed T-shirt.
BaconCamp Columbus (August). Columbus, Ohio celebrates bacon with a bacon throwdown — a bacon-cooking contest with three categories: sweet, savory and facon (fake bacon) — a homemade bacon contest and a bacon art/craft competition.
Portland BaconFest (August). Portland, Oregon, takes its porcine party to the streets, with a Saturday bacon festival featuring over 900 pounds of bacon. Includes live bands to get the crowd ready for the bacon toss, wacky bacon eating contest, giant bacon twister, greasy bacon foot challenge, bacon dance off and bacon art wall.
Blue Ribbon Bacon Tour in Reykjavik, Iceland (August). Features a bacon-themed dinner and all-day Blue Ribbon bacon and beer event. Local delicacies include fermented shark, lobster soup, puffin, cod cheeks and more stuff that goes great with bacon.
Knoxville BaconFest (September). Bacon in the house in Knoxville, Tenn.! Features a Swine & Dine meal from two well-known chefs, tips for baking with bacon, a smokehouse discussion, a bacon cookoff, and more.
Carolina Bacon Festival presented by the Blue Ribbon Bacon Tour in Charlotte. Will showcase bacon varieties from the Southeastern U.S. and Midwest along with a wide variety of southern-inspired bacon menu items. There will be a bacon-themed dinner created by Chef Joe Kindred of Rooster's Wood-Fired Kitchen. You’d expect no less from the second-largest pork-producing state!
Bacon Bash (September). Thrown by Mr. Bacon Pants himself, this event takes place at Pittsburgh’s Harris Grill and features all kinds of bacon delicacies including bacon pierogies, bacon sushi, bacon shot glasses, bacon gelato and more. Plus, a bacon-eating contest.
As Charles Lamb said in "Dissertation Upon Roast Pig": "Pig — let me speak his praise — is no less provocative of the appetite, than he is satisfactory to the criticalness of the censorious palate. The strong man may batten on him, and the weakling refuseth not his mild juices."
Or, as Homer Simpson likes to say, "Mmm...bacon."
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