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It's been a couple years now since I first started saying that I was going to do a book on bacon. It's been pretty consistent throughout that one or two out of ten people I tell will turn right around and ask me how one could write an entire book about such a narrow subject. While 240 pages of bacon may seem like a lot to most people, there really is a lot to learn, a lot to say, and a lot of good cooking to share.
At the moment, my appreciation for long-term, rewarding relationships is leading me to write a bit more here than is in the actual book about that really good peppered bacon from Arkansas. I've heard more than a few unsolicited compliments in the last couple weeks about the Arkansas Peppered Bacon.
One woman came up to me at the bacon book event I did earlier in the month at the American Library Association conference in Chicago to specifically tell me that the Arkansas Long Pepper Bacon is her "all-time favorite." Another guest wrote in from the East Coast that after seeing the pimento cheeseburgers with Arkansas peppered bacon recipes and notes in the book, she made the burgers for a big gathering of friends and family, and they were a huge hit.
On top of that, I've been cooking with it a lot at home. I made a really good "Provincetown Scrapple," inspired by a 1950s cookbook about Cape Cod. The dish was great and I'll be writing it up soon. I put it with eggs, on salads, and on pasta as well.
The details of how the actual bacon is produced, and the family background of the folks who make it are in the book, so I'm not going to repeat all that here. What's not really in the book, though, is the story of how we first got the bacon. It must have been nearly 20 years ago. For those of you who haven't been around that long (which is most of you), you should know that the Arkansas Peppered Bacon is one of the longest-standing products we've sold. It's been on sandwiches and in the meat case at the Deli probably for two decades. I can't remember where exactly I first heard of it; could've been at a food show, maybe from reading an article...or it could've be on a tip caught in conversation with a colleague.
Regardless of where I personally came across it, though, the credit for bringing the bacon out to the world and getting it to anyone who's not actually from Central Arkansas goes to Sharon Meehan and her really great little company Ham I Am. The story is that back in the early '80s, right around when we were opening the Deli, Sharon and her family used to take their summer holidays up in the area around Mt. Petit Jean. And while they were up there they came upon these very delicious pork products that were being cured, smoked, and sold by a local, family-owned meat market. The Meehans used to bring ham and bacon back for themselves each time they'd drive home to Dallas. (If I remember right, with all deference to Jefferson Airplane and Grace Slick, it was a White Rabbit they were driving.)
Photo by Ryan Stiner
As Sharon shared the smoked pork with friends, she started to get requests to bring the bacon home. Within a few years, filling up the car to carry ham home for pork-loving neighbors evolved into an actual for-profit business. Sharon started shipping the hams from her Dallas "headquarters" to pork lovers all over the country. Today her daughter, Meghan, is managing the business and maintaining Sharon's sense of fun, quality, caring, and generosity.
The bacon is really something special--the fact that it still tastes so good to me after 25 years says a lot. I cooked a couple thick slices to serve with scrambled eggs and greens the other night. The flavor is very solid. Nice big base, nice finish, nice clean flavor. Lots of good spicy black pepper that builds up in your mouth for ten minutes after you've finished eating it.
Seriously, if you're in need a little bit of smoke and black pepper spice, this bacon will work for you really, really well. It's a really well-balanced bit of bacon. It's smoky, but not too much at all. Spicy, but hardly overbearingly so. And, now that I think about it, I can't remember ever tasting this stuff and thinking that it was too salty.
It's also really a great cooking bacon--a little bit added, in chunks, to a pasta dish, or soup, or whatever adds a great deal of very good flavor. Speaking of which, and also speaking of fish, one of the best ways to cook almost any fuller-flavored fish would be to just chop up a bunch of the Arkansas Peppered Bacon and toss it in a skillet. When it's lightly cooked add some mackerel, catfish, trout, scallops, or whatever you like. Cook the fish til it's tender and scoop it and the bacon quickly out of the pan with a slotted spatula. Leave any fat in the skillet and throw in a mess of fresh spinach from the market (washed, ok?) and sauté it for about two minutes at most 'til it wilts. Toss that on the plate next to the fish and eat it all while it's hot!
I guess in some ways, though, the bacon is really a tribute to the great relationships that we've built up with the bacon makers over the many years we've been buying, and a tribute to my belief that when we're working with great-tasting traditional foods, as we are and always have been, the trends may come and go, but for us, good flavor and working with good people doesn't really go out of fashion. On the contrary, they've been at the core of what we've been doing for 27 years now, as have Sharon Meehan and the Arkansas Peppered Bacon. I have high appreciation for all!
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