Bacon continues its reign as food’s bad boy

9 local burgers to try on National Cheeseburger Day
Nicole Peaslee
The Old Fashioned's No. 29 burger

Any way you slice it, bacon is more popular than ever. Despite an increasingly health-conscious public, every year bacon consumption in this country tops more than 900 million pounds. Just why is it so fanatically adored? The Royal Bacon Society, a Bacon of the Month Club and who knows how many festivals — including the annual Bacon Bash in River Falls — celebrate its glory. The list of bacon-flavored products seems never-ending and sometimes peculiar: Lester’s Fixins Bacon Soda, Bakon vodka, Bacōn cologne and even Mr. Bacon’s toothpaste.

Bacon is certainly not new. It dates back to the Roman Empire, and many cultures throughout history have had a fondness for the cured pork treat. Around the world, bacon prevails in many configurations. In the U.S. it’s made from pork belly, usually cured with salt and sugar, and smoked before being carved into long strips. British and Irish bacon is cut from the belly and loin — a leaner type referred to as back bacon. Derived from Old High German, the word “bacon” means “back of the hog.” In German today it’s called “speck” and sold in chunks. Italy’s contribution, pancetta, is salted and peppered pork belly that’s rolled into a cylinder before being thinly sliced and eaten raw. More like ham, Canadian bacon comes from the loin.

Some credit Madison’s Oscar Mayer for facilitating the bacon breakfast boom in the early 20th century. The company introduced pre-sliced and shingled rashers in 1924. The meat had been around since colonial times, but for most the morning meal was a simple repast of bread, porridge and coffee. About the same time that Oscar Mayer launched its packaged bacon, a national marketing campaign began, suggesting to Americans that eating a heavier breakfast — specifically bacon and eggs — was healthy. Of course, it was inevitable that something that tasted so good would eventually be deemed bad for you. High in saturated fat and cholesterol and processed to boot, it may contribute to heart disease and cancer. No doubt part of the appeal of eating bacon is it’s just a bit naughty.

I try to follow a healthy diet, but how can I totally abandon something so marvelously crisp, smoky and salty? One of the best bacon brands around is Nueske’s. Preeminent among the applewood-smoked genre, it hails from Wittenberg, Wisconsin, and restaurants and gourmet cooks from coast to coast rightly sing its praises. Surely nothing could be worse for me than a bacon cheeseburger, but guilt be damned! Bliss awaits at The Old Fashioned, where pepper jack cheese, jalapeños and Bavaria’s hickory-smoked bacon crown its spicy burger.

There’s a theory that everything is better with bacon. Stellar examples include bacon and cheddar biscuits at Batch Bakehouse, bacon truffles at Infusion Chocolates and The Roman Candle’s Professional pizza, which includes chicken, veggies and, of course, bacon. But the best deal around surely is free bacon at Wando’s on Tuesday night.

I refuse to believe that occasionally indulging in a little pleasure can be bad for me.

Dan Curd is a Madison-based food writer who has written for the magazine for more than 20 years.