Bacon is a Food Group
The wind made me nervous. Since the only things I’ve ever smoked were first rolled in a thin sheath of paper, it would’ve been prudent for me to wait until all conditions were ripe, until the gusts had died off. But I’m my mother’s daughter; patience is not our way.
The nearby farm had agreed to my request, slaughtering the thoughtfully reared Berkshire pig at a whopping 310 pounds, its girth guaranteeing a thick layer of pearly white back fat, perfect for swaddling pancetta.
And for producing thick slabs of smoky bacon.
I unearthed from the back of a cabinet the small, precious, elaborately calligraphed box of Binchō-tan, a traditional Japanese charcoal. Made from urbame oak, the official tree of the Wakayama Prefecture, this special charcoal has been produced since Japan’s Genroku era, in the 1600s. During this Golden Age, at the latter part of the artistic and creative Edo period, a craftsman named Bitchū-ya Chōzaemon concocted this charcoal by burning oak branches at extremely high temperatures for several days and then rapidly cooling them. Harder than ordinary charcoal and about the size of a middle finger, Binchō-tan burns at a lower temperature for a longer period of time, inveigling me to use it for smoking food.
A forearm-thick hunk of pork belly had been curing in a slush of brown sugar, pink curing salt, cayenne, and black pepper for days beyond its recipe, working its magic into a rectangle of pork the size of a license plate.
In an massive yellowware bowl, wood chips and dried branches pruned from Sonoma’s organic apple trees soaked in water, while the Binchō-tan charcoal was placed on a small pan in the bottom of an old metal smoking box, each piece producing a distinctive chime as they clinked against one another, toasting their service to my gastronomical call.
With sooty fingertips, I ripped a Strike Anywhere match against a patio brick, lighting the charcoal with a few shreds of the Sunday paper, watching the grotesque headlines alight and disappear into smoke. The hot ash blew around in the wind, settling near the garden hose, my suburban line of defense.
The pan above the charcoal was filled with water to slowly boil, its steam providing moisture to the meat splayed on the racks above. Tending the fire, I added an occasional piece of Binchō-tan and scattered handfuls of the wet wood onto the ash-white coals, which hissed displeasure at the dampening intrusion. For several hours, the smoke whirled its fragrance deep into the lardaceous flesh, their vapors kindred with a woman of a certain age, who seduces with a dab of perfume rather than a callow cloud of eau de toilette.
More focused on smoke than temperature, the box never heated above 125 degrees, leaving the pork decidedly uncooked. Finishing the bacon in the oven for an hour and a half at 200 degrees filled the entire house with aromas of sweet smoke and pepper. Now well after 10pm, we spoke briefly of waiting until breakfast to try the bacon, all the while walking purposefully towards the kitchen. Without further conversation, a small pot of water was hit with a good glug of oxidized Chardonnay and a shake of black truffle salt and set on a low flame, readied to poach eggs. Stalky, late-in-their-season bitter greens were clipped from the garden, chopped finely, and wilted with spring garlic and pepper flakes from a dozen varieties of make-me-cry hot chilies, hoarded and dried each autumn. A cast iron skillet brushed with porky pan drippings was laid with thin strips of Pumpernickel bread, liquid sunshine burnishing the black. As a tall bottle of Saison Dupont ale was split between two glasses, the pork was cut into Canadian bacon-like slabs and nestled next to the pile of greens and eggs, the toasted soldiers glistening from their watchtowers on the corners of our plates.