From humble beginnings as a staple food of the common folk to a celebrated fixture at brunch tables worldwide, the history of bacon is as rich and layered as its taste. Its salty, smoky flavor has fascinated humanity’s palates for centuries, and its story is woven into the annals of human history, agriculture, and cultural development.
The history of bacon dates back to the days of yore. Archaeological evidence suggests that pork was a common food as far back as 5000 BC, particularly in China. However, the process of salt-curing pork belly, which gives us bacon as we know it today, began later, around 1500 BC. The Chinese were the first to salt-cure pork belly, creating a primitive form of bacon. The Romans and Greeks also had their version of bacon; they boiled salted pork with figs, then browned and seasoned it. The Romans called this dish “petaso.”
In medieval Europe, the term “bacon” referred to pork in general. The word comes from various Germanic and French dialects and is derived from a term that means “back,” suggesting that early bacon was cut from the back of a pig. The specific process of curing and smoking pork to create bacon, however, started to become common practice in Europe in the Middle Ages.
In England, a town named Dunmow started a tradition in 1104 where a side of bacon was awarded to any married man who could swear before God and the congregation that he had not quarreled with his wife for a year and a day. This unique custom, known as the Dunmow Flitch Trials, attests to the value of bacon in medieval society and is still held periodically today.
Bacon in the New World
In the 16th century, bacon made its way to the Americas with the arrival of European settlers. They discovered the native population’s method of smoking meats and fish, which they adopted and improved upon by integrating their salt-curing knowledge, thus creating a distinctive form of bacon in the New World.
The early 18th century saw a revolution in bacon production. The industrial revolution led to the invention of better machinery and methods for slaughtering, butchering, and preserving meats. Bacon production became more systematic and efficient, and the product more standardized.
In the 20th century, advances in refrigeration technology allowed bacon to be shipped and sold across great distances, leading to its worldwide popularity. The post-World War II era in America saw a significant increase in bacon consumption with the rise of the “bacon and eggs” breakfast tradition, popularized by Sigmund Freud’s nephew Edward Bernays through an extensive PR campaign.
In recent decades, bacon has become more than just a food; it’s a cultural icon. The late 20th and early 21st centuries have seen the rise of “bacon mania,” with bacon finding its way into unexpected culinary creations like bacon-infused vodka, bacon ice cream, and bacon-wrapped…everything! Bacon’s popularity has even extended into non-edible merchandise, such as bacon-scented candles and bacon-themed clothing.
The Evolution of Bacon
The actual process of making bacon has evolved over time. Traditional bacon is made from the belly of a pig and is dry-cured in salt and sometimes spices. After curing, the bacon is typically smoked. This is the time-honored method, and many artisan producers still use it today.
However, in the mid-20th century, the most common form of bacon in the United States became “streaky bacon,” made from the pork belly and characterized by its distinctive streaks of fat. The bacon is wet-cured in a brine before being smoked and sliced.
In contrast, Canadian bacon, often called back bacon in the UK and Ireland, is a leaner cut from the loin of the pig. It’s wet-cured and often rolled in cornmeal. British bacon, also a cut from the loin, retains a bit of the pork belly, giving it a more substantial fat content than Canadian bacon.
The Ongoing Love for Bacon
Today, bacon remains an adored foodstuff worldwide. The diverse culinary traditions have produced many unique variations of this versatile ingredient. From the maple-glazed bacon of Canada, the pancetta of Italy, to the crispy streaky bacon in the U.S., bacon’s universal appeal is undeniable. Despite its occasional vilification due to health concerns, bacon continues to sizzle in our hearts, reminding us of its journey from ancient cultures to our modern tables.