Monday, May 5, 2008

Evanston's Whole Foods indulges our breakfast meat cravings

photos by Laura Gray

I'd seriously consider being a vegetarian if not for a single solitary carnivorous indulgence: bacon. Is there another natural food product that so clearly defines the infinite joy of our existence? No, not really. It's the aroma that can drag the most hungover heap of humanity out of bed, the thoughtful addition that makes otherwise healthy food crave-worthy, and the secret ingredient that galvanizes the flavor and appeal of everything from salad to chocolate bars. So strong is the devotion to bacon for myself and three friends that we actually took days off from work to attend a bacon tasting class at Whole Foods in Evanston, and let me tell you—it beat a regular old "sick day" on the couch into oblivion.

We arrived a few minutes before the noon start time of the class and were ushered into the super secret Bacon Scent Containment Module, better known as the test kitchen upstairs from the main grocery floor. To tantalize our taste buds, class instructor Jean Hougard and her assistant, Buffy Feinstein, served a light lunch—you guessed it—a BLT accented by a creamy goat cheese. Tasty, to be sure, but no match for the parade of crunchy, smoky, salty, melt-in-your-mouth goodness that followed.

The depth and breadth of the bacon world is far more dramatic than what one finds in the refrigerator section of your garden-variety chain grocery stores, and we spared no caloric expense to explore bacons of every make and model. Whole Foods astutely had members of its meat department on hand to share some of the nitty gritty details about how our favorite salty snack comes to be. All bacon meat comes from the belly of the pig and takes its flavor from the process that comes between porker tummy and plastic package. Most bacon available in America is uncured, meaning that it is smoked prior to cooking over a specific wood like applewood or hickory. Cured bacon is prepared dry, in a sugar and salt mixture, or wet, in a brine solution. All of this talk of methodology and technique only served to heighten our anticipation, and Hougard and her staff didn’t disappoint when it was time to sample the delicacies.

There was pancetta, the tightly wound, thin and crispy Italian interpretation of our beloved pork product. There was the “Muslim special,” beef bacon that tastes much like warmed and softened beef jerky. Let’s not forget an organic bacon and a maple cured variety, all of which served to expand our knowledge (and deepen our love) of the little breakfast wonder that could. It’s an indulgence, to be sure, but one we’ll hold close as long as there are cured, smoked and seasoned meat products to enjoy. – Elizabeth Drew