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Friday, January 10, 2020

Bacon Grabbers

From the Food Vault Dept.: It was a mob scene. The 2012 Bacon Fest in Hudson, NY, attracted so many attendees that almost no food remained by the time I got there to be one of the judges. I described the experience in the Metroland article below.


IN A PERFECT WORLD, there would be no bacon. A perfect world, that is, for nutritionists and vegetarians. In a perfect world, there would be bacon galore. A perfect world for those who’ve succumbed to the rasher’s charm. In the imperfect world of Hudson’s first-ever Bacon Fest, we experienced both, which is a fancy way of noting that the festival’s many charms were overshadowed by the fact that it was visited by the worst possible problem: the bacon ran out.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
Sunday, Sept. 2 – the Sunday of the holiday weekend – the morning was warm and clear and the day seemed to grow hotter and sunnier. I’d been invited to the festival as a judge, and who can turn down an opportunity to sample a varied canvas of bacon?

This came on the heels of a tasting a I attended last month, at a whitewashed gallery space on Manhattan’s Mulberry St. It was the launch of Jennie-O brand turkey bacon, joining a line of other processed-turkey products made by this Hormel subsidiary, and it was presented as a healthy alternative to the traditional stuff, with high-energy TV chef Devin Alexander on hand to guide us through a quartet of breakfast-y preparations, each of which substituted altruism for flavor.

Turkey bacon is like a frozen dinner – a simulacrum that should be taken on its own merit. When real bacon sizzles at you from the stove, there’s no mistaking it for any other foodstuff. For many, it’s a cheerful link to childhood. For some, it’s a rebellion against our over-protective age. But I’m guessing for most it’s purely sybaritic. The combination of fat and crunch and meat and salt is as compelling a culinary experience as you could desire.

Fifty years ago, we tried cooking it in our toasters (the short-lived Reddi-Bacon). Single-purpose bacon cookers are out there, and the misguided insist on microwaving the stuff. But nothing beats the sensory experience of watching a dozen or more striated strips writhing and popping on a hot cast-iron dance floor.

“I’m a vegetarian,” says Mikko Cook. “But Brian, my husband, is a lover of bacon, and we’ve noticed that there’s this renewed interest in bacon in the air. We started talking about it.” And they noticed that there’s no area bacon festival. “We go to the annual garlic festival in Saugerties, and the pickle festival in Rosendale. So we decided to put this together.”

The venue was a riverside park not far from Hudson’s Amtrak station, which was one of the problems. Another was a piece that ran the day before in the NY Post. A lot of people were inspired to take that train. The organizers hoped for 500, maybe 1,000 people. About 3,000 showed up.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
Repercussions seemed to go on for days. Although there was a notable lack of participation from Hudson’s restaurants, I walked past the Red Dot on Warren St. on my way out, and saw “We Have Bacon” snidely noted on its sidewalk sandwich board. And the talk-schlubs on radio’s Fly 92 indulged in a nasty-assed trashing of the event without speaking to any of its organizers.

“We personally responded to many, many people,” said Cook. “We said we’d make it up to them, and we’re trying to be true to our word.” On the bright side, the event raised $2,000 for the Regional Food Bank of Northeastern NY, to which the Cooks added another $1,000.

When I arrived, early in the afternoon, a battlefield feeling already prevailed. What had been a massive line – long enough to discourage a visit by Mario Batali – had shortened because the ticket-sellers were waiving the fee (although they were dealing with the erupting problem of settling with unhappy refund-seekers.

Now the long lines stretched back from a pair of vendor trucks, as Slidin’ Dirty and Pippy’s Hot Dogs tried to keep up with the ongoing demand for the non-bacon sandwiches that remained. Inside the vendor tent, each successive menu board sported the word “bacon” only with a line through it.

With so many of the disgruntled heading away, what remained was a core of people happy to munch on what still was available and enjoy the music of a succession of vibrant bands, with a nice view of the river just beyond the bandstand.

My fellow judges were Steve Barnes from the Times Union and Dan Berman, the voice behind FUSSYlittleBLOG, and we were assured that a well-guarded cache of food items remained for our delectation.

It was a shocking sight to some of the passers-by as the three of us were served round after round of appealingly aromatic fare. I heard cries of, “How come they get bacon?” more than once.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
Winner of the savory category was the Hawaiian hot dog from Pippy’s Hot Dog Truck. The dog, no surprise, was wrapped in bacon before hitting the deep-fryer, and served with a pineapple-mustard-ginger sauce. I found the flavor fun, if mustardy, and thought the cheap bun a liability, but majority opinion prevailed.

My own savory favorite, the portobello mushroom topped with bacon-enhanced chevre from Goats and Gourmets, would win no beauty prize (a deft plate-decoration of flowers notwithstanding), but the cheese-to-bacon balance was just right.

Bacon and goat cheese also figured into a truffle crafted by Sweet Sues of Troy, served alongside a shard of bacon brittle. Tasty as it was, it lost in the sweet category to the outrageous bacon-bourbon caramel salted cupcake from Carlucci Simons Catering, the cream cheese frosting of which was a marvel of a collision of bacon and sugar.

Overall presence of bacon was one of the criteria by which we judged, and it was surprising to taste such a variety, from the complex but bacon-light cheese spread from Worldling’s Pleasure of Watervliet to a milkshake (the provenance of which I mercifully can’t recall) that seemed clogged with bacon gravel.

The bacon tended to vanish into the barbecued ribs around which it was wrapped, while a bratwurst roll-up with bacon, cream cheese and green peppers lacked a strong enough statement from the sausage.

I loved the originality of Slidin’ Dirty’s bacon-wrapped butternut squash eggroll, but its muted flavor was rescued by its lemon-sage dipping sauce. And for the ultimate in excess, I defer to the maple-bacon whoopie pie from the Local Flavor CafĂ©, a confection so sweet that I feared that eating it would affect my grandchildren’s blood sugar.

Although I attended the event with a decided advantage, I’d still call it a qualified success. It proved that bacon maintains its deep cultural resonance. It demonstrated the meatstuff’s impressive versatility. And it guarantees that there will be so much bacon at next year’s event that the nearby hills and valley will rock with the delicious aroma.

Metroland Magazine, 13 September 2012

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