Bacon — sizzling, salty, chewy, crunchy, glazed, or peppered — shall I go on, or are you already salivating? There’s no denying the power of this pork product. Bacon has moved in the collective mindset from commodity to cultural icon, from breakfast’s sidekick to culinary superstar. It’s impossible to say no to a perfectly crisped strip dangled right in front of you.
When I was asked to go on a bacon ride-along with Seth Zurer, co-founder of Baconfest Chicago, there was clearly just one answer I could give.
The afternoon started at Primehouse, a steakhouse with the distinction of having participated in every Baconfest since the event’s inception nine years ago. We were presented with three bacon-focused dishes: a thick disk of pork belly with bacon-braised celery, tomato and clam purée, mustard cream, and a chamomile tea reduction; a bacon arancini molded around a soft poached egg with tofu-Kewpie mayo aïoli and bonito flakes; and a throwback dish, Primehouse’s popular Bacon on a Stick, with chunks of thick bacon glazed in BLiS brand maple syrup and black pepper.
As we dug into the first stop’s offerings, I delved into Zurer’s path to bacon greatness. A quick rundown of his resume may be perplexing; considering his degree in English literature, experience in web development, and involvement in theater, it’d be fair to wonder about the origins of Baconfest.
In truth, Seth had it in him from early on, instilled by his foodie family. “We ate lots of pork,” he explained. “We really followed our stomachs.” The love for food crystalized into writing for Chowhound during college, where Zurer developed strong ties to the restaurant community. After graduating, he worked at a mix of places — a travel agency specializing in Italy, a social justice community group, a logistics company — but continued writing on the side, moving from Chowhound to help create LTH Forum, now a well-established website in the Chicago food writing scene.
Theater was another passion — both acting and producing — and it was ultimately in this realm that Baconfest was truly born. Michael Griggs and Andre Vonbaconvitch (as is his preferred nomenclature) were two theatrical sound designers with a deep passion for bacon and a crazy vision. Inspired by a musical about beer, they dreamed of creating a bastion of bacondom for all avid pork fans, a “Burning Man of bacon.” Zurer bought in, and nine years later, their festival of bacon is going strong.
Stop two on our bacon tour was of particular interest to my sweet tooth: Firecakes Donuts. Zurer and I snuck behind the counter to admire a tray of the Baconfest delicacy, a glazed doughnut stuffed with maple cream and topped with a savory chunk of bacon. After a bite, Zurer gave his stamp of approval. “This is a really balanced doughnut,” he said. “It can be easy to get carried away, incorporating bacon into every part of a dish, but bacon as a counterpoint is good too.”
As I reached for a second doughnut, I had to ask the obvious question: Why bacon?
“Bacon is that rare ingredient that is welcome in many levels of cuisine, from the gourmet to the everyday,” Seth replied. “Even before it became this cultural force, there were chefs who appreciated it for that savoriness, that umami it brought to a dish. Chefs who had that relationship with bacon were really excited about what we were doing.”
He laughed. “If it had been up to me, I would have chosen sausage. But my partners really wanted bacon, and I’m glad they did.”
From Firecakes it was on to Chicago French Market to enjoy the fare of Saigon Sisters. Co-owner Mary Nguyen Aregoni served us another trifecta of pork dishes: pork fried rice with kimchi and pickled beets; a bánh mì with head cheese, ham, cilantro, and daikon; and a pork belly bao. Snow had begun to fall on our bacon tour, and the spicy kick was a welcome warm-up.
As we applied liberal amounts of Saigon Sisters’ T-Racha hot sauce and set to filling whatever room was left in our stomachs, Zurer gave me an idea what a year in the life of a Baconfest founder is like. “The month after the event, I’m on a high. Then summer is the season of procrastination. It’s not until September or October that I get into gear and start restaurant recruitment for the fest. In December we offer the first round of tickets. Then from January to April, it’s full-time work. I don’t relax again until the final Baconfest session.”
That work does not go unappreciated, as Baconfest has seen thousands of bacon devotees descend on the event year after year. In 2017 they are adding even more ways to appreciate the fest with new ticket types. A “no alcohol” ticket is available for those who don’t want to waste valuable stomach real estate on booze, and if you enter the event 30 minutes after it begins, you can get discounted admission. Group rates are being offered for the first time as well.
We capped off the day at Peoria Packing so we could bring home the bacon, naturally. We surveyed the choices of cuts, and Zurer shared a recipe that might kick-start my own pork ambitions. I was certainly regarding the piles of bacon with far more respect, thanks to the tutelage of the true bacon aficionado. Seth recognized the potential in an everyday ingredient and created something exciting — nine years of unique dishes and rasher-inspired camaraderie.
I returned home, bag of bacon in hand, inspired and hungry for this year’s Baconfest.
Get tickets to Baconfest Chicago 2017 on the website.