Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Hog Wild

At Sunday night’s Epiphany party our group convened to cap off the Christmas season with a potluck and to catch up on everyone else’s holidays. My good pal, Chuck Taggart of Gumbo Pages fame, brought his amazing Pork & Pork & Pork & Beans to share. Have this even once, and you’ll never settle for mere pork and beans again. In fact, if I ever find myself on death row, that dish will be one of the components of my final meal.

As Chuck and I compared notes on the contents of our luggage when we returned to Los Angeles after Christmas, he from New Orleans and I from Memphis, we concurred that an awful lot of pork was involved. My suitcase was stuffed with packages of country ham and bacon and a big ol' hamhock. His haul was similar, but included tasso, the secret ingredient in many fine Cajun and Creole dishes, along with Zapps potato chips and lots of booze.

In case you’re wondering, yes, you can buy pork in Los Angeles, but those mass-produced packages of Uncle Tater’s or Little Willie’s bacon will be essentially flavorless and injected with water, which is why it shrinks to nothing when you cook it and tastes like nothing when you eat it.

As we cooed over our devotion to pork, I said, “There’s only one thing better than bacon.” Chuck looked at me as if I'd lost my marbles. I paused for effect, then said, “Bacon topped with bacon.” He sighed and said, “Thank God! I was about to ask, ‘Who are you and what have you done with my friend, Carol?’”

The challenge is in reconciling a love of pork with the need to eat more healthfully, and this is where the good stuff comes in. Andy and I refuse to cast out pork like some demon bent on our destruction. Instead, we hold to the wisdom of Pete Wells, who contends in the pages of Food and Wine magazine that bacon isn’t a meat but rather a condiment.

He certainly has a point, especially as it relates to good quality bacon. The flavor is distilled smoky, salty, sweet porkiness, which we savor as we would any fine wine or food: a tiny bit at a time, over a long period of time. In fact, since Christmas we've been sharing one strip of bacon about every other morning.

Half a strip?! That sounds rather spartan, but when you eat the really good stuff—like what Chuck and I packed back to Los Angeles from home—and enjoy it over the course of a meal, it's amazing how satisfying a mere half strip of bacon can be, how the flavor lingers and how the aroma and the memory goes with you. Truth be told, I enjoy a smaller portion much more, because I don’t mindlessly wolf it down.

According to Aesop, “Better beans and bacon in peace than cakes and ale in fear.” He must have been buying his bacon at a chain grocery.

There’s a fable in there somewhere, I’m sure.

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