Recently Tablet Magazine ran an article titled “High on the Hog“, where it looked at the phenomenon of cuisine which purposely mixes not just meat and milk, but treif (forbidden foods) with foods considered to be part of the Jewish culinary spectrum (matzo balls, bagels, etc). Several of the speakers talk about cuisine a flexible medium, and a reflection of the cosmopolitan world we live in. They talk about shattering barriers, challenging assumptions.
Besides, many say, who can resist the persistent pull of the pig? Food, they tell us, is better with bacon.
I find myself siding with Rabbi and Chef Gil Marks (also quoted in the article), that pork does not stand shoulder to shoulder with the a good set of pots and pans in terms of importance in the kitchen. It’s not a necessary component.
In Texas, a smoked turkey leg serves the same role in dishes as bacon or a ham hock. And while it isn’t easy to find right now, beef bacon (beef smoked and treated in the same process as pork bacon) does exist.
Worried because fat = flavor? Turn to the past, honor your grandmother, and pick up a carton of shmaltz. Phil Romano, an accomplished local chef, reminded me that “instead of butter, you already have a great alternative in rendered chicken fat. But if that is not the way you would like to go, there is always a plethora of butter alternatives that can be used and a few of the better ones even act like butter when melted.”
But it’s more than all that. I’ve come to learn that bacon is almost a cop-out for cooks.
Recently, my friend Doug attended a cooking lecture which was supposed to present some innovative cooking techniques. The presenter began the first demonstration by tossing a stick of butter and a few pieces of bacon into the pan.
“I just walked out.” he said, “It was clear I wasn’t going to learn anything there. You can make ANYTHING taste good if you start with bacon and butter. Good food is more about technique and care than anything else. If you can cook well, you can serve up a vegan dish and a non-vegan will enjoy it.”
(By the way, Doug’s site is testimony to that ideal. You should check it out.)
That leaves us with the issue of the people who submit to their porcine pecadillos, their attraction to sinful sausages, their… well, you get the idea.
That some people feel pork is irresistible, and that it’s very forbiden-ness in conjunction with Jewish cooking makes it that much more attractive, only points (in my opinion) to the growing phenomenon of “food porn” – food that titillates as much as (or more than) it satisfies.
“Suppose you came to a country where you could fill a theatre by simply bringing a covered plate on stage and then slowly lifting the cover so as to let everyone see, just before the lights went out, that it contained a pork chop or a piece of bacon. Would you not think that in that country something had gone wrong with their appetite for food?”
– C.S. Lewis
How close are we to the world that C.S. Lewis envisioned? How far have we strayed from the idea of food that nourishes and sustains us, toward one where it merely tantalizes but leaves us feeling empty, or worse, sullied?
At the end of any meal or snack, Jews are commanded to give thanks. Part of that blessing – the Birkat Hamazon – is the phrase: “Blessed is our God, whose food we have eaten, and through whose goodness we live.”
Speaking for myself, I try to make sure that when I say those words, they aren’t going to get stuck in my throat.