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One night in the epicenter of bacon memes

Photos: (Top left, top right, bottom left) Peter Tsai, (bottom right) Ben Collins-Sussman / courtesy of Baconfest
Photos: (Top left, top right, bottom left) Peter Tsai, (bottom right) Ben Collins-Sussman / courtesy of Baconfest

Is bacon a cliché? It certainly is on the internet, where it has transcended the indulgent, nom-nom-nom #foodporn likes of unicorn cupcakes and Man V. Food-style tailgating bacchanals and landed in the realm of self-reinforcing online truism. It is the food equivalent of Chuck Norris or Shark Week, cultural items embraced with competing notes of nostalgia, irony, and sincerity. We love bacon because it’s funny, but it’s also funny how much we love bacon. This kind of meme serves as both postmodern critique of indulgent American masculinity and a wholehearted embrace of it. In the process, it’s not quite clear who’s in on the joke and who’s the butt of it.

What, then, of Baconfest Chicago, the city’s long-running, convention hall-filling celebration of America’s favorite pork product? For one night, “We have the meats!” wasn’t the clarion call of Arby’s, but the UIC Forum where the event was held, a fresh breeze of bacon-scented air permeating outside the venue. Now in its ninth year, the event is spread across three meals—a Friday dinner, Saturday lunch, and Saturday dinner—each of which rotates out a completely different set of chefs from Chicago restaurants tasked with creating the best bacon-themed dish. Organizers said they drew 4,000 attendees, sampling from the dozens of chefs who dutifully doled out 4 tons of pork belly provided by Wisconsin artisan butcher Nueske’s. At $60 to $200 per ticket, it’s certainly not for the merely bacon-curious, though if you want to eat bacon there isn’t a better place on the planet to indulge: Entry grants you as much of any dish as you like alongside a whopping seven drink tickets. The guy at the Templeton booth was not afraid to pour, either, letting attendees engorge themselves on rye whiskey and pork fat like power-mad 19th-century oil barons.

This, then, was a gathering of true acolytes, although I was curious as to whether they were there merely at the furthest possible extension of an ironic attachment, or because of some greater siren call—a safe, cavernous, fluorescent-lit space in which to eat as much seared pig fat as they possibly could. I was probably not the best candidate for this assignment, in hindsight. While I do eat meat, I am utterly insufferable about ensuring that the animal lived the happiest possible life, and was pampered so extravagantly during its short existence that it walked merrily into the slaughterhouse out of gratitude toward its owner. It doesn’t help that I am also so genetically predisposed to high blood pressure that I technically had hypertension in high school. I cut out cigarettes and most meat in my 20s and voila, I’m in the clear. We all have our burdens.

Photo: Ben Collins-Sussman

Accordingly, I received the gust of meat-scent that greeted me to the event with a hint of trepidation, if not for the psychic and environmental stress created by 4 tons of bacon-meat being created then on the stress a depraved orgy of meat-eating might have on my body the next day. It did not help that, while reading up on bacon history before heading out, I discovered that its surplus of nitrates may cause cancer. Cool, I thought. And yet I noted Baconfest did not smell like death, either porcine or human. It smelled like… bacon. I cautiously made my way among the rows of chefs, eyeing possible first courses, before settling on a nice, temperate sandwich from Wyler Road dubbed the BLFGT—bacon, lettuce, and fried green tomato. I bit into it. The bread was delicately toasted, and, mid-way through the bite, there it was: an elegant undertone of smokiness, the slightly unctuous snap of a crispy strip of bacon. It was delicious. I felt every shit I had ever given about pig well-being flutter out of my brain like birds spooked from a tree, and in their place came the realization that I was going to eat every goddamn piece of bacon these people would give me.

The logistics of Baconfest, held in a huge beige conference hall better suited for cardboard placards promoting hearing-aid technology advancements, dictates the use of chafing dishes full of foods that are then prepped and plated to order. Thus, many of the food items there fell into one of a few main categories:

  • Sandwiches
  • Fried balls of cheese accompanied by some sort of goo
  • Bacon on a toothpick

But even then, there was great variety to be found. Some of the best dishes I had were in these categories, like the crispy pancetta arancini with a sweet bacon jam from Carlucci Restaurant, or Slurping Turtle’s “bacon bincho,” which dominated the “bacon on a toothpick” category by searing the bacon right at the table, wrapping it around a date and skewering the toothpick with a fulsome tater tot. Michael Jordan’s Steak House served bowls of bacon and oyster gumbo, the saltiness of the bacon balancing an earthy shock of filé powder, proving the bacon aficionado’s truism that “everything is better with bacon” to be, well, not exactly incorrect. Gumbo does not need bacon, but at an event at which so many dishes attempted to place the meat on center stage, the gumbo showed how beautiful bacon could be as a more superfluous adornment.

Photo: Ben Collins-Sussman

Baconfest delights in these unlikely but harmonious juxtapositions: There was also bacon jambalaya, bacon falafel, bacon soda, a best-in-show-winning lobster-bacon cappuccino, a taco full of bacon, a taco whose shell was bacon, a bacon-studded biscuit with bacon-infused jam, bacon soup and bacon pho and bacon cake and bacon rice krispies. A humble bacon-pecan bar from the Greater Chicago Food Depository lingered on the tongue for minutes afterwards (the festival donated $30,000 to the food depository). One booth even offered vegan organic bacon. I ate it all, moving past a barrier of exhaustion and on into a second phase of sheer, unbridled consumptive nirvana. The showstopper was Park Grill’s porkeño norteño, a picture-perfect Chicago hot dog stuffed with confit bacon and jack cheese and then wrapped in bacon. It was… really good, obviously. It was shortly after eating a sandwich just called the Bacon Explosion that I noticed I was no longer finishing dishes, just taking them and dazedly trying some before continuing on my way. I saw Bobby Flay stalking about, bird-like, interviewing chefs. He attempted to get the crowd riled up by saying, “I thought you guys won the World Series!” but even a celebrity walking among us in the flesh couldn’t distract this crowd. We’d already seen the star of the show when we opened the doors—or, smelled it, rather.

And while, yes, there were people decked out in ironic shirts and dresses, and a man whose face was covered in bacon stickers that made him look, from afar, as if he had just been beaten with an iron rod, the actual makeup of Baconfest attendees was noticeably different than, say, the giggling throngs who gather for a midnight Room showing. There were older couples enjoying an adventurous night out, good dads finding a thing to do with their pissant teenage sons, and families that seemed to have caravaned in from out of state. We came from all walks of life, and ended up in the same place: panting in a cold sweat, splayed out in padded conference chairs in the hallway, seeking, just, like, some fresh air for a minute, or some water—God, some water. I chugged glass after glass after I made it home, and then I woke up still gasping in the middle of night, a nightmare parched throat that felt like a curse, a hex, a bacon hangover. A fitting punishment.

Photo: Ben Collins-Sussman

But then, this is part of the allure of Baconfest, and of bacon itself. It was relegated as a lesser pork byproduct during the cholesterol scare of the ’80s, and so anyone born that decade or later has grown up knowing that is not the healthiest of foods to be obsessed with. And yet obsess we have: the threat of a shortage in 2012 lead to hysterical headlines like Time’s “Start Hoarding Now,” and in February of this year another purported bacon shortage lead to another round of frenzied, semi-joking news reports (Forbes called it a “looming disaster”). Does this end? As many as five years ago, people were arguing about the death of the “bacon trend,” weighing whether the whole thing had been a periodic upswing in consumption or a permanent shift in our diet. In 2017, the histrionic obsession with bacon—the candles and condoms and perfumes—have jumped the shark, but sales of the meat remain strong, and are trending upward. We’ve settled into our love of bacon; the ’80s and ’90s were a brief period of separation, and the memes were the sweet make-up period. It is, today, the epitome of a guilty pleasure: We are obsessed with it even though we know it will kill us.

In that sense, it’s not far off from something like cigarettes, which we all know are unhealthy but still, by and large, find an unethical 7-Eleven clerk to buy from at some point in our teens. Anyone who has ever smoked and quit cigarettes knows: they’re delicious. They’re designed to be. Bacon is nature’s equivalent—with an assist by curing salt and wood smoke—and far be it from me to cast an eye askance on someone enjoying the lord’s bounty. That’s why it’s worth separating the internet’s version of bacon from the real stuff, as Baconfest does. There’s plenty of bacon humor on display, but the real meme being celebrated there is the oldest one of all: its pure, elemental hedonism. I’d rather my food be delicious than funny, anyway.