Now, Sohn and Knoxville are by no means the first to have a BaconFest—no one seems to be claiming that honor, but there are certainly pre-existing bacon festivals in Portland, Ore., Kansas City, San Francisco, and as a benefit for Dad's Garage Theater in Atlanta, just to name a few. But our area does have a unique right to be fond of bacon: It's dead set in our Appalachian heritage, according to the experts like the one Sohn grew up with: her father, Mark Sohn, a 30-year resident of Pikeville, Ky., and Appalachian cookery expert.
"Bacon is very important in the traditional mountain diet," says Mark Sohn. "The pigs could run freely in the hills and take care of themselves, and then in November or December, many families would kill a hog. This Hog Killing Day was a day of abundance, everyone would gather. The thing with the pork and the hams and the bacon from that day is that they were needed to last a long time. So they were cured, salted, smoked, and aged in the process, and that adds a great deal of flavor. And the bacon in turn would add a great deal of flavor to the sustenance foods in the mountains—the green beans, the corn bread, the dry beans. All the flavor comes from the bacon."
One little detail there, though. When Mark Sohn says bacon, he means pork. From a pig. Nothing else qualifies as flavorful, or as part of Appalachian heritage. "Turkey bacon? That stuff is not bacon, it's flavored meat," he says gently, but incredulously. "Kosher" bacon, made of beef, like that famously served at the now-shuttered Harold's deli? "Kosher bacon, that's craziness," Sohn adds. "Turkey bacon, veggie bacon, those are all other foods; a different kind of thing."
Our kind of thing, the hardscrabble but pride-filled tradition of using free-range, cured pork as a seasoning fundamental, may have paved the way for the home cooks and trendy chefs experimenting with bacon hereabouts, a trend Sohn says has caught hold nationwide. "I don't have statistics, just a feeling, but as I've been traveling to promote my latest book [Appalachian Home Cooking: History, Culture, and Recipes], I've noticed bacon has gone up in popularity in just the past two or three years," he says. "I think it's as foods have become more savory instead of sweet; as sugar has gone down in popularity, bacon's gone up."
In Knoxville, new takes on bacon include Benton's bacon served atop a crisp fried oyster and creamed spinach and below Hollandaise sauce as part of Oysters Rockafella at the swank downtown S & W Grand, and trendsetting RouXbarb chef Bruce Bogartz' "Rabbi Goldstein's Shrimp and Grits," which include Benton's bacon and smoked tomato vinaigrette.
Nama manager Stanton Webster demonstrates the Knoxville home chef's fascination with bacon in new recipes: A direct descendant of sustenance farmers, he too considers bacon a prime experimental ingredient. "I love pork, I love bacon, I love all of it," says Webster, who was formerly general manager for La Costa under Gregg White's ownership, and studied classics at the University of Tennessee. "While bacon is a ‘trending topic' as it were right now, it's something that's been there always, at least in my life. I grew up on a farm in Middle Tennessee, and my dad did, too. It took dad years and years to get back to eating pork, because in his family's lean years, that's all they had."
Webster is married and has his first child on the way, and says he uses bacon more as a cooking element; no noshing on strips of bacon at his place. "I keep bacon grease on hand to use as an ingredient, for corn bread, or if I need fat for sauteing. And in vinaigrettes, I've been using a little bacon fat instead of olive oil to make warm dressing for salad. I love good smoky bacon fat, good cider vinegar, and molasses for that."
Webster, who will curate wines at the Swine and Dine portion of BaconFest 2010, likes Benton's for "most all his bacon uses," and holds both man and bacon in the highest esteem. "I made a visit to the roadside store. They are so into what they do and they do it so well. For me, it was like mixing pork and smoke and church. Benton's bacon spoke to every element of my Southern upbringing."