America's favorite pork product has inspired countless 21st century Internet memes and pop culture collectibles: "You had me at bacon." "Either you like bacon or you're wrong." "Keep calm and put bacon on." But the passion for cured pork goes way back.
Bacon in Ancient and Medieval Times
Salted pork belly appeared on dining tables thousands of years ago in China. Pork curing methods spread throughout the Roman Empire, and Anglo-Saxon peasants cooked with bacon fat.
Until well into the 16th century, the Middle English term bacon or bacoun referred to all pork in general. The word bacon derives from various Germanic and French dialects, including the French bako, common Germanic bakkon and Old Teutonic backe, all of which refer to the back. But the cut typically used to make bacon comes from the side, or belly, of the hog. In modern England, a side of bacon is called a gammon and a slice of bacon is known as a rasher .
In the 12th century, a church in the English town of Dunmow promised a side of bacon to any married man who could swear before the congregation and God that he had not quarreled with his wife for a year and a day. A husband who could "bring home the bacon" was highly regarded by the community for his forbearance.
Bacon in the New World
Queen Isabella sent eight pigs to Cuba with Christopher Columbus, but the National Pork Board credits Hernando de Soto as the "father of the American Pork Industry." He brought 13 pigs to the shores of the New World in 1539; within three years his herd had grown to 700.
Native Americans reportedly fell in love with the flavor and readily accepted pigs and pork products as peace offerings. By 1653, a rapidly expanding, free-roaming and unruly swine population nearly thwarted Dutch construction of a wall on Manhattan Island meant to keep the British and Native Americans out of New Amsterdam.
The site later became known as Wall Street. Pigs continued to run wild in New York City into the 19th century.
Bacon on the Modern Table
In a health-conscious age, you might expect to find fatty bacon low on the list of preferred foods. Yet, as anyone who dabbles in pork belly commodities can tell you, bacon can singlehandedly boost the pork market. Americans consume 70 percent of their bacon with breakfast. But the crispy, salty meat also stars as a sandwich ingredient and a favorite of chefs in fine dining establishments, so that bacon shortages have at times caused prices to soar. Still, bacon remains a bargain when it comes to adding flavor. Bacon aficionados enjoy the cured meat in both classic dishes such as chowders and adventurous concoctions ranging from bacon ice cream to chocolate-covered bacon to bacon jam. With low-sodium and lean varieties available, even a dieter can partake in moderation.