Why Won’t Bacon Go Away?

This pork product's cultural currency has long passed its expiration date

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I love bacon. I’ve rhapsodized about it on TV, had it sent to me in the mail, even written a poem about it. I eat it almost every day. But bacon as a trend is a monster that won’t die, and I can’t understand why.

The proximate cause of my disbelief, an incredulity so intense that I could feel my scalp tingle, was the announcement of United States of Bacon, a new TV series premiering Dec. 30 on the lesser known cable channel that is Destination America (an introductory episode ran in July on the Discovery channel). As far as I can tell from the teaser, the show is so grossly formulaic that it almost seems like a parody: a portly, spiky-haired host overemotes into the camera about “the orgasmic sense of bacon,” sings silly bacon songs, and otherwise checks off every trope of oaf-pandering, lowest-common-denominator programming you can think of. I am embarrassed to say that I am looking forward to it.

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I mention how dumb the show looks not because I have anything against it personally — hell, I’ve been on some pretty terrible food shows in my time, and, as Don Corleone says, “It makes no difference to me how a man makes his living.” But for years now, bacon has been a free pass, a watchword, the last refuge of a bore. I made one of my most conspicuously wrong pronouncements in 2007 when, on New York’s Grub Street blog, I confidently announced that bacon had “jumped the shark.” (This was so long ago that the very term I used to describe bacon’s tiredness has itself passed into obscurity.) It seemed to me that bacon’s countercultural moxie — the symbolic middle finger it gave to haute cuisine and healthy eating — was played out, as hollow a gesture as a “Question Authority” bumper sticker.

And yet bacon just kept coming — bacon wallets, bacon jewelry, bacon bandages, a relaunched bacon-of-the-month club. Any restaurant could spike sales by adding bacon to a dish; any fast-food chain could count on a Pavlovian response to the word, as when Burger King recently trotted out the pork product as a sundae topping. There are now multiple stores on the Web that specialize in bacon paraphernalia. “Bacon mania” even has its own, not unscholarly Wikipedia entry, for the love of Mike!

I’m not going to tell you that I know the secret of bacon’s talismanic power. Clearly, I don’t since I keep underestimating it. But I have a few suspicions. One has to do with taste, one has to do with coolness, and one has to do with manhood.

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Bacon does have a distinct, wonderful taste, as everyone knows. But you can’t really taste bacon when it’s inside of a double cheeseburger or wrapped lattice-like around a pound of sausage. For my money, you can’t even really taste it when it’s smoked with applewood, which is the bacon equivalent of near beer. But what you can taste is fat. Americans think they don’t like eating fat straight up; they cut the edges off pork chops, use “buttery spreads” instead of butter and go to restaurants that give you bad olive oil with your bread. Bacon is about the only form of straight fat eating that exists within the American mainstream. And fat is the active ingredient in everything good in any meat you can name. The lean muscle is just along for the ride. In bacon, as in everything else, the fat is the meat, and the meat is the vegetable.

Bacon isn’t cool, any more than, say, Nicki Minaj is cool. But it’s cooler than hamburgers, chicken and pizza, in the exact same way that Minaj is cooler than Katy Perry or Taylor Swift. Now this may be a low bar, but a low bar is exactly what you need if you want tens of millions of people to jump over it. While I doubt that anybody really considers bacon idiosyncratic or transgressive in any way, it has the magic quality of being just different enough, just odd enough, to qualify its proponents as not absolutely mainstream. In this, it is like almost every product that has enjoyed mainstream success.

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There was much blowback from the Dodge Charger commercial some years back that proclaimed, in almost homicidal tones, that men had been put upon too long and deserved to have, at the very least, a hypermasculine muscle car as a consolation prize: “man’s last stand.” Well, times haven’t gotten any easier for men, or so it seems to that portion of the male population that stoops to “white male victimhood.” (I learned this phrase on Jezebel, the lady blog I read every day to find out what the other half is thinking.) The heyday of white guys may be far from over, as the election supposedly indicates, but that only makes white guys more incensed, in states both red and blue. Among Americans who don’t want to come off like mullet-wearing goons, bacon is an acceptable substitute for less innocuous totems of proud manhood. Yes, it’s weak, and yes, a lot of women are into bacon too, but I smell something besides cured meat and smoke coming from bacon; I smell the sweet stench of identity politics.

I may be wrong about all this — I have been before. Is bacon a trend, a state of mind, a sign of the times or some weird kind of cultural lingua franca? I can’t say. But for better or for worse, I think we really have come to live in the “United States of Bacon.”