I’m sure many others’ lives changed with the culinary awakening caused by the Food Network. We watched Emeril BAM! out the dishes for an hour every night just wishing we could sit near the stage and sample the surely-delicious dishes. We discovered pancetta, prosciutto, shallots, new ways to use grits, what al dente means, and many other food revelations previously known only to professionally trained chefs. Food became such a large part of pop culture that chefs were becoming rock stars. It’s been said the Food Network is the MTV of my generation, and just like MTV hasn’t played a music video in the last 20 years, Food Network is beginning to only show cooking competitions with very little technical value to someone wanting to pick up culinary knowledge. I guess there are only so many ways to cook a plate of steamed fish and vegetables, though.
There was one thing brought about by this culinary revolution of the last 15 years that stuck with me so solidly, that it has become a part of my DNA. It is that there is a difference in bacon and good bacon. Chances are that every grocery store in your town sells crap bacon. Many folks have never and will never have good bacon in the entirety of their unfortunate existence. Most bacon the average consumer will purchase from the refrigerated case at their local Piggly Wiggly, Kroger, or WalMart is a mass produced, wet cured, substandard product that has been rushed from the slaughterhouse to the consumer- even the expensive, thick cut stuff. They can’t take the time required to do it right.
I always liked bacon; so much so that at one time my Twitter name was Bacon McBaconpants. Before my awakening, I thought that it was the ultimate bacon experience to go to Wiliams Bros. in Philadelphia- owned by the family of Archie manning’s wife , Olivia- to get them to slice my bacon directly off the slab until I discovered that it was the same as the expensive thick bacon I could buy in the grocery store. Then one day, I was made aware of Benton’s Farm in Madisonville, TN and that you could buy their gourmet bacon online to have it shipped to your kitchen. This would change my life.
Benton’s bacon is shipped in a shrink wrapped, one-pound package with no dry ice or even overnight. It comes in a regular cardboard box, and each package says that you can store it for up to 4 months in the cabinet. That unreal shelf life is because this is the bacon of our forefathers. It is the bacon that my grandparents and great-grandparents slaughtered every fall, packed in salt and spices, and hung in the smokehouse for weeks. It’s the bacon that has become a rarity in modern life.
I am very blessed to have my friend Earl, who seems to travel once or twice a year through the small Tennessee hamlet where the Benton Farms store sits. He lets me know when he’s going, and I give him my order. Orders placed online are fulfilled once their supply is sufficient, and I’ve waited as long as 4 months on a shipment in the past. The first time Earl went, he told me of a guy who backed his truck up to the front door and asked to buy 400 pounds of the smoky, unctuous delicacy. So, it can be difficult to procure.
Now for the best part…
When you open the package and remove the smoky strips of orgasmic, porky love, you feel the difference between this Duesenberg level bacon in comparison to the 1989 Geo Metro bacon you get from the local slop market. Benton’s is firm and doesn’t slime your hands immediately.
Your nostrils are then caressed by the gentle wisps of its smoky aroma letting you know that this is the real deal. As you place the long, thick slabs of meat in a cold iron skillet, the anticipation builds. You turn on the heat, but not too high. Don’t rush the process. – You’re not in the back of your mom’s station wagon on prom night trying to get your date’s skirt off before the cops find you parked behind your church gym. – As the heavy black pan begins to warm, your kitchen takes on the air of one of your ancestors’ smokehouses.You quickly turn the vent hood on high so as to not alert anyone else in your house to the presence of this delicacy. Their neanderthal palettes can’t possibly appreciate the magnitude of the greatness of this heavenly meat.
As the meat begins to cook, it dances seductively; undulating as it releases its juices onto the dark, matte surface of the iron pan. After a few minutes of staring longingly at the gorgeous meat with its striations of alternating white fat and pink lean, you realize that your mouth is agape and a stream of drool is creeping slowly toward the pan. Quickly, you wipe your chin and turn the bacon, revealing the perfectly seared side. The remaining naked side comes into contact with the now shiny, seasoned pan. The visual difference in Benton’s is clear. The half-cooked strips are still nearly as long and wide as they were when you pulled them from their package.
The aroma has now overcome your vent hood’s ability to evacuate your kitchen of the glorious odor released from the Maillard reaction occurring in the sturdy, simple, black iron cooking vessel on your stove. Unfortunately, you hear kids’ feet hitting the floor. You are flush with panic! You have to think quickly. What should you do? Should you try to confuse them and send them back to bed? Where is the pistol? Can you bury the bodies in the backyard without hitting a gas line when digging the holes? Will DHS put you in jail for locking them in the utility shed out back? Then, as if by divine intervention, you remember that the little bacon leeches have given each other sinus infections that have rendered their senses of smell useless. The foot traffic you heard was just one of them headed to pee and then back to bed.
Your fear subsides, and you realize the bacon is done. You lift it from the pan onto a plate and pour up the grease in the pan to be used later in a pot of beans or a pan of cornbread.
The time has come. Your anticipation is at a crescendo. Your mind is out of control. Thoughts are flying haphazardly; bouncing from synapse to synapse with no sense of order or direction. Your body is alive. Electricity is flowing through your limbs. Your hair is standing on end as you prepare for your first bite. The experience reminds you of the first time you saw a naked woman in person.
You take your first bite…
The texture. The taste. The aroma. The color. It all comes together in perfect union at this point in time, at this place in the universe. You are a part of a rare perfect event. At few points in anyone’s life does something happen that can rival this first bite of Benton’s bacon. The birth of your children, you say? Hahaha… NO! Most folks have kids. That’s nothing special. Most folks don’t get to experience Benton’s. That is something to be cherished; revered. You shouldn’t take for granted the importance this event has to your time on the top side of the dirt. I still remember that morning of Saturday, April 28, 2012, when my world changed…
Go forth and fry, my friends.