D.M. bars will bring on the bacon (lots of it)
By MIKE KILEN • REGISTER STAFF WRITER • February 13, 2008
Bacon. Bringin' it home. Makin' it.
The very word drips with money, sex, pork fat - three things that spin the world.
So when Brooks Reynolds was asked the question Des Moines always asks itself - "What does Des Moines need?" - this is what he said:
"A festival for bacon."
Thus, the High Life Lounge will hold its first Blue Ribbon Bacon Festival March 1, National Pig Day, attracting bacon lovers from California and Arizona along with a Pittsburgh bacon blogger.
To Reynolds, it was no throwaway line. For years, he has gathered his buddies for a summer weekend pilgrimage to a Spirit Lake cabin for "all things bacon," toting along 15 pounds.
When they returned, their wives and girlfriends complained their very skin smelled like bacon grease.
"Why not bring it to the masses?" asked Reynolds, 32, a Des Moines insurance salesman.
He spoke to the right man, Jeff Bruning, one of the owners of the High Life Lounge and El Bait Shop, a master of tapping into the nostalgia, guilty consumption and manliness that launched a '70s lounge smelling of cheeseburger baskets and Pabst Blue Ribbon.
Bruning is almost offended when asked why.
"I'd answer the question with, 'Why not?' and 'Are you kidding me?' Go ask a few people what they think about eating bacon and, as long as they aren't sickly skinny, and they are from Iowa, they will tell you why."
Split the vein of an Iowan and bacon drippings ooze out. It is well-known that pigs far outnumber humans in Iowa - with often better qualities, including the meat culled from its sides and served with eggs.
Bacon evokes memories of weekend mornings when, like summer days at the grill, dad found his culinary place, flipping thin slices of meat, calling out to the primal man.
Bacon is about sustained attention in a click-happy TV-remote-and-computer-mouse world. It must be forked, flipped, watched. It must not be under- or overdone. It must be honored.
Bacon is about our state's history, when hungry country folk needed meat in their bellies to chore.
Bacon is the underdog, in the shadow of the Iowa chop and thick beef steak, a hardworking food for the fearless.
"Historically, it's called the middling or side meat, the part right below the spare rib," said Leo Landis, who studied agriculture history before taking a job at the Iowa Newspaper Association.
He is careful about his bacon. He buys whole hogs and has even butchered one himself. When he does buy bacon, he knows how it is cured. Although many buy the Hormel or Farmland brands at the supermarket, private labels are tops in total sales.
At venues such as Polehna's Meat Market in Cedar Rapids, the bacon is cured in brine for days and then stored in a smokehouse.
Landis, who Reynolds calls the "professor of bacon," said bacon has regained popularity, fighting off the fat-phobic with help from traditional foods' comeback.
Bacon sales rose 20 percent from 2000 to 2005, which the National Pork Board attributes to added flavors such as maple and jalapeño and the increased use of bacon to accompany other foods. Sixty-two percent of restaurants have bacon on their menu, as more have included it in nonbreakfast items such as sandwiches, pizzas and salads, according to the Foodservice Research Institute.
Pork bellies, the uncured bacon often heard about on farm reports, have become a thing of beauty to high-end restaurants serving haute cuisine.
Enosh Kelly, chef at Bistro Montage in Des Moines, uses pork belly in his cassoulet, a classic French dish.
"Pork belly has really come on," Kelly said. "And bacon is one of those guilty pleasures. Even vegetarians long for it."
The beauty of bacon is in its simplicity - 74 percent of the time served on its own. The most basic of combinations - the bacon, lettuce and tomato - should be the official summer sandwich of Iowa.
Bacon does invite misconceptions. Men claim bacon as their own, although 46 percent of bacon-eaters at breakfast are women, the National Pork Board reports.
"I certainly think of it as more of a guy food," said Landis, who will lecture on bacon at the festival. "I don't know if it's something in our DNA.
"In Iowa, it's a traditional breakfast, and it was a good food you could store and keep on the farm for a long time."
Jason Mosley of Pittsburgh, also know as Mr. Bacon Pants, said he has learned in four years of writing a bacon blog that bacon does not discriminate.
"I know a girl that says if a man doesn't eat bacon she will not date him," said Mosley, who saved money to attend the festival here. "It combined my two favorite things, bacon and PBR."
PBR will be offered for $1 a draw, paired with succulent dishes such as bacon-wrapped shrimp, little bacon cheeseburgers, a bacon-wrapped jalapeno and tater tot - all the gourmet bacon foods.
Bruning also donated 50 pounds of smoked malts to local home brewers to create a smoky beer that will go well with bacon.
A fiery starter will be the Blazin' Bacon Bloody Mary, served with a slice of peppered bacon.
For dessert, a Chicago chef has created maple bacon cheesecake with a Templeton Rye whiskey glaze.
The bacon-eating contest should be competitive.
It wouldn't be smart to get between a pound of peppered bacon and Brooks, who will be ignoring his girlfriend's dire warnings of his high cholesterol.
That's part of the pleasure of bacon - thumbing your nose at conventional advice.