“The drought is here,” says farmer Garry Angell of Rocky Ridge Ranch, 30 miles west of Spokane. The last good rain was back in June. His pasture is dry, save for the early mornings when dew dampens the grass. By mid-afternoon the rising dust forces his hogs to wallow in man-made mud.
But Angell still has hogs and that means he still has bacon, meaning that all the talk a few weeks back about a bacon shortage was just that, talk. The initial reports, however, were disturbing. There might not be a shortage quite yet, but bacon fans aren’t completely in the clear.
We live in a nation that consumes bacon bedecked doughnuts and cupcakes, a country that wraps bacon around steaks, scallops and shrimp. We even have bacon-flavored vodka. When bacon-lover and Eastern Washington University English lecturer Jim Coy heard of an impending shortage he put it simply: “Oh no. Not bacon.”
His weekly Saturday morning side of bacon is an integral part of his breakfast. He even has a cast iron skillet, a kitchen vessel that, he explains, “is the only way to fry bacon.” Bacon, according to Coy, must be fried; never microwaved or baked. When asked if he would have hoarded the cured meat, Coy replied, “Absolutely. Hell yes.”
Coy may be pleased to know that bacon, when placed in a vacuum-sealed container and kept in a freezer, can last for years, if not decades. Some prosciutto has even been known to survive hundreds of years. The dried meat transforms into a brick-like solid. Pieces are hacked off in flakes.
Today, though, no one needs to resort to the consumption of bacon bits. Even though consumers of bacon maple doughnuts held their slabs close to their chests when the British National Pig Association’s news of a shortage hit the webs in late September, their fear was premature and misplaced.
The bacon panic was founded on some facts. There is a drought and the drought is affecting feed prices, and as prices of feed go up, so does the price of hogs. There are other factors as well. The demand for pig meat has increased globally, as has the demand for grain, the price of transportation and energy costs. All of these expenses have resulted in non-commercial hog farmers being forced to either sell their products at a loss or to raise prices. So the supply is intact. There is no shortage. But the price of bacon? That’s going up even as some hog farmers try to keep costs down.
Many hog farmers have found shortcuts around the grain shortage that is threatening a boom in pork prices. While it is illegal in Washington for a hog to consume meat, some farmers feed their pigs a slop mixture composed of rotten vegetables and inferior grain.
Poorly fed pigs lack adequate nutrition and the result is an inferior product. Chef Jeremy Hansen of Sante explains that bacon will still taste like bacon, even if it comes from a poorly fed hog, but there’s a difference between what Hansen calls all-natural bacon (which he serves and sources from Rocky Ridge Ranch) and feed-lot bacon. Feed-lot bacon is bad for you. No word on whether or not all-natural bacon can actually be good for you, but it is better to eat a pig that’s barley-fed over one that’s been eating tater tots.
Twenty years ago, a bacon shortage may have been considered newsworthy only to breakfast and brunch aficionados, but this recent panic rapidly spread across time zones and oceans. Why the interest and concern?
Hansen noticed bacon’s trend from breakfast meat to dessert delicacy about 10 years ago when chocolatiers began combining the crispy bits with creamy chocolate. The mix of savory and sweet, of fat and salt plus sugar, was not only too intoxicating to ignore, it was also ripe for exploitation. The act of placing an already scandalously unhealthy meat atop a decadent dessert was psychologically appealing to the bad boys and girls in all of us. Practically everyone became a carnivorous rebel. Bacon became a sundae topping and maple bars were never the same. Should bacon become an economically unviable option, is there anything that could replace it?
Angell, at Rocky Ridge Ranch, suggests thinly sliced ham while Hansen believes there are several possible options. One is guanciale, Italian bacon made from pork jowl. Still layered in lustrous fat, but from a different part of the swine, pork jowl has a slightly gamier taste than the bacon we all know and love. Tasso, a Cajun-spiced shoulder or back leg bacon is another option. Then there’s prosciutto. Possible beef options include beef prosciutto or cured beef belly.
“But,” Hansen says, “it still tastes like beef.”
Based on my own jerky/ice-cream experiments, I am inclined to agree that beef is no substitute for bacon. Thankfully, it appears that these experiments will never have to be replicated. Should the price of bacon get too rich for your blood, just pack your rifle and head south.
“There are so many hogs in this country,” Hansen says, pauses, and mentions the nuisance boar populations that roam freely in Texas. “Switch to wild boar, you’ll be fine.”