Pittsburgh shows its colors on TV's 'United States of Bacon'
Of all the foods in existence that are available and acceptable to the human palate, bacon may receive the most acclaim.
Seriously, who doesn't like the flavor of bacon? Even vegetarians have their version of meatless fakin' bacon.
Yet, in the past few years, bacon has gone from breakfast staple to decadent indulgence to total ubiquity. Have we reached Peak Bacon?
If the new show on Destination America, owned by the Discovery Channel, “United States of Bacon” is any indication, bacon isn't going back to its breakfast plate doldrums any time soon. The show shot an entire episode in Pittsburgh, which will air at 10:30 p.m. May 31 as part of Destination America's “Meat Week.”
“Bacon started out as a working man's breakfast, and Pittsburgh has that reputation as a blue-collar town, and having such deep food traditions,” says the show's jocular host, chef Todd Fisher. “Plus, I wanted to go to Pittsburgh.”
The acclaimed California chef's enthusiasm for bacon and its many permutations in Pittsburgh is easily transmitted.
“Harris Grill was hilarious,” Fisher says. “One of the owners (Rodney Swartz) may be a long-lost brother. Our stature was very similar, maybe because we were eating deep-fried Bacon Seahorses. I fell in love with the Pittsburgh people. I was trying to learn the language they speak.”
Harris Grill, known for its weekly Bacon Night, puts bacon in a lot of things, from cocktails to bread pudding. But its deep-fried Bacon Seahorses are a different species entirely. It's basically applewood-smoked bacon dipped in garlic, salt and red pepper batter, then deep-fried. The result curls into something resembling a seahorse, in shape and size.
The bacon bacchanalia extends to the relatively new Industry Public House in Lawrenceville, which uses wild boar bacon everywhere it can. Fisher describes it as “lean and mean,” and gamier than regular bacon, due to the wild boar's foraged diet, which is a lot different from the usual farm-raised pig corn diet.
Fisher almost squeals with delight when he talks about Winghart Attack Pizza at Winghart's Burger and Whiskey Bar in Market Square.
“This pizza was unbelievable,” Fisher says. “An 8–inch pie smothered with bacon, chili, fries and cheese. It was purely a day of gluttony.”
Owner Zachary Winghart breaks down the appeal of bacon to its simplest components.
“Human beings love fat and salt,” he says. “Half our menu has bacon on it. I was consciously thinking, ‘I can't put bacon on everything...' I could probably do it, and no one would complain.”
Fisher certainly wouldn't complain. He hasn't yet found a dish that's made worse by the addition of bacon — and he's tried.
“There's not yet one thing that I've done with bacon that hasn't worked,” he says. “Now, if you eat it in its raw state, that's not good. It doesn't have any texture, just a fatty glob. When we were in Baltimore, we went to a place called Bad Decisions. We tried to create a bad decision with bacon. But even deep-fried, bacon-wrapped maraschino cherries was delicious. The only time I had something that didn't work was when it was poorly executed, like when my daughter got impatient making a bacon milkshake.
“It's so delicious and universal. You wouldn't put steak with ice cream. But bacon and ice cream is a fantastic combination. It's also easy to do. You can do it at home. The chef at Penn Brewery showed us 11 different ways.”
The last stop in the Pittsburgh episode is at Penn Brewery at the foot of Troy Hill. This acclaimed brewpub is mostly known for three things, all of them beer.
Soon, the list could include bacon.
“Our chef has a real affinity for bacon,” says Penn Brewery co-owner Linda Nyman. “He thinks it's its own food group. He's done a lot of experimenting with smoking his own meat — we have our own smoker behind the brewery.”
For the show, chef Greg Schrett assembled his masterpiece – a monstrous BLT piled to the sky with 11 different kinds of bacon — 13 if you count the bacon-flecked bun and creamy bacon mayo.
The sandwich included bacon cured with maple and honey, “pea-meal” bacon — cured, unsmoked loin bacon, rolled in ground yellow peas – and chicken-fried jowl bacon.
“Even some bacons I had only heard of, not actually seen,” Fisher says. “The one that was probably most unique to me was Black Forest bacon – traditional pork belly, cured with juniper and dark spice, smoked with pine and juniper berries.
“If you're familiar with Black Forest ham, it was unique to see bacon done that way,” he says.
That special BLT is not one you'll find regularly on the menu, Nyman says.
“What is in the menu is the normal-size version. Chef does his own BLT sandwich with regular smoked bacon and back bacon – which is unusual to find. It's a little like Canadian bacon – more like sliced meat than strips of bacon.”
Watching Fisher go hog-wild for bacon in Pittsburgh, you have to wonder if he eats bacon at every meal. And if he knows a good cardiologist.
“I don't have it at every meal, because that would be a silly choice,” Fisher says. “I may be a bacon-oholic, but I'm not an idiot.”
Bacon, he says, is the great equalizer.
“You don't have to be rich,” he says. “You can be poor and still get bacon. Not everyone can afford to eat caviar and foie gras, but the people who do still have that pit in their heart that craves bacon.”
Michael Machosky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-320-7901.