July 15, 2011 7:39:00 PM
Carmen K. Sisson - [email protected]
The only thing rising faster than the price of bacon may be its overwhelming popularity. Long the staple of Southern breakfasts and summer sandwiches, the porcine palate pleaser is enjoying a national renaissance, gracing everything from book covers to gift wrap and playing the starring role in recipes that would make Paula Dean shudder. (She's not the only one. Care for a cup of maple bacon coffee with your bacon brownie? How about a bacon-infused martini, or "Pig on the Rocks"?)
Two weeks ago though, when CNBC.com reported bacon prices could escalate to as much as $6 per pound over the next few months, it made us wonder: Just how serious is this bacon crisis, and -- more importantly -- are people in Columbus likely to trade their streak o' lean for lighter fare?
Don't bet on it.
When it comes to off-kilter economic indicators, bacon -- and other food items -- is a pretty good way to judge the local fiscal climate.
On one hand, the sticker shock is a lingering effect of the nation's continuing economic woes. According to CNBC and the U.S. Labor Department, retail bacon prices averaged $4.77 in May, due largely to the rising cost of pork bellies, which is where most of the country's bacon originates. (Side and back meat is the preferred cut of bacon elsewhere.)
And what's to blame for the higher cost of pork bellies? The high price of corn, which has caused many hog farmers to keep herds lean -- in quantity and in size.
On the other side of the economic and gustatory equation is the pleasure principle. As people pare down in other areas, like family vacations and new automobiles, they tend to spend more time at home. And what do they do most? They cook. And they eat.
'Everything's better with bacon'
Dawn Mason, manager of The Butcher Shop on 13th Street North in downtown Columbus, stared out the door last Friday, watching the heat rise and waiting on the last straggling customers of the day -- many of whom came to buy her father's homemade honey.
Opening the narrow door of her front-room meat case offered an intoxicating olfactory assault of smoky goodness. Tucked away on the bottom shelf, one package of applewood smoked bacon remained.
Mason said she never used to offer bacon; the store only used it to wrap filet mignon. But so many people kept asking about it that she finally started setting a few packages aside each week, just for them. Even at $4.65 a pound, it sells.
"I'm partial to it myself," Mason said. "Wrapping bacon around lean meats gives them some moisture while cooking. People even wrap it around link sausage and grill it."
Doesn't that push the pork factor to a bit of an extreme?
"It's taking it a little far for me, but surely it would be good," Mason said, grinning as she prepared to share her culinary secret. "Everything's better with bacon."
Higher gas prices, and the nation's dependency on transported food, has caused even traditionally "cheap" cuts like ground beef to nearly double in the past five years, she said. Still, business is good.
'The best bacon in town'
Business is good at The Ranch House restaurant on Alabama Street as well, where a packed parking lot and jammed dining room indicate not everyone is dragging the cast-iron skillets out the cupboard just yet.
Joyce Alexander, who has owned the restaurant seven years with her partner, Bill Colvin, said their bacon is a big part of the appeal.
"We've got the best bacon in town," she boasted last Friday afternoon. "You need to ask people. It's just outstanding. People come out just for the bacon."
Every week, she serves up nearly 120 pounds of the stuff. A good portion of it appears on the Friday through Sunday buffet line, where it has become almost a loss leader.
Alexander admitted that as bacon becomes pricier, it's really too high to allow diners unlimited access, but they like it and it keeps them coming in, so to her, that's all that counts.
Still, last year she had to raise the buffet price from $8 to $8.75. People told her she should raise the price to $9, but she resisted.
One thing she did try to change was the brand of bacon, experimenting with a cheaper quality. That lasted only a week or two before she returned to Laurel, the salty favorite of her patrons -- some of whom, according to her, eat as much as two pounds in a sitting.
"It's better to pay the price and keep our customers," Alexander said. "They've gotten so used to this bacon. As long as it keeps our customers here and happy."
Mike Fowler is one of those happy customers. He eats at The Ranch House five days a week -- sometimes more. Often, his granddaughter, 3-year-old Peyton Trump, accompanies him.
"She is a bacon lover," he said Saturday morning, as he sopped up the remains of his breakfast with a piece of bread. "All she wants every time she comes is bacon and toast. I try to get her to eat pancakes and other stuff, but all she wants is bacon."
He said he cooks bacon at home occasionally, and he keeps a close eye on the prices. Recently, he noticed Sunflower was selling Wright's brand for $3.34 a pound. A year or two ago, he only paid $1.99 a pound for his favorite fixation, but the high cost hasn't tempered his spending habits -- yet.
"I don't buy less, because I like bacon, too," Fowler said. "But I know a lot of people aren't buying as much as they were."
If prices do rise to $6 a pound, he said he will reconsider. As for his Ranch House habit, he said that's unlikely to change. After all, for less than $3 more, he can get eggs, locally made sausage, hashbrowns and all the bacon he -- and his granddaughter -- can eat.
"She's funny," he said of Peyton. "If she can't eat it all, she makes them bring her a to-go box."
1 Pound Bacon (not thick-cut)
1/4 Cup Brown Sugar
BACON FRIED BANANAS
1 pound of bacon
3 ripe bananas, sliced
CHOCOLATE BACON BARK
12 ounces semi-sweet chocolate chips
7 large strips of bacon, fried until crispy
Carmen K. Sisson is the former news editor at The Dispatch.