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Pittsburgh Brings Home the Bacon

| Wednesday, Sept. 29, 2010

Every Tuesday afternoon, the kitchen exhaust fans at the Harris Grill in Shadyside are switched on. For the next few hours the nearby streets are bathed in one of the most arresting, passion-invoking smells known to man.

If it were a scene from a cartoon, the smell of frying bacon would rise up from the Harris' skillets, waft into Ellsworth Avenue and physically yank people into the restaurant by their nostrils.

In reality, not a bit of coercion is required. By now, it's well known that Tuesdays are Bacon Night at the Harris, where bacon is passed out for free like peanuts at the bar, and diners at tables can eat endless amounts of cured, salted swine for $1 per basket. The mere promise of such a bacon nirvana is more than enough to fill up the place.

"Bacon is salt and fat with just a bit of sweetness all in one delicious package," says Rodney Swartz, co-owner of the Harris, which first experimented with Bacon Night in 2005.

Free bacon was all they had to say to create an instant sensation that has been going strong ever since.

During the past 10 years, bacon's popularity in America has reached rarefied heights. Pittsburgh is no exception. The city was one of the biggest stops on last year's Blue Ribbon Bacon Festival, is home to nationally-known blogger Mr. Baconpants and has plenty of restaurants with bacon featured on their menus — sometimes in surprising presentations.

In recent years, various dining spots in Pittsburgh have offered bacon cupcakes, bacon-infused beer and whiskey, chocolate-covered bacon, ice cream topped with bacon and much more. (And, to be clear, when we say bacon we're talking about the long, thin, fatty pork-belly cuts served at greasy spoons around the country.)

"Bacon is so in vogue right now that you can do just about anything with it and people will try it," says Kevin Sousa, one of Pittsburgh's most renowned and inventive chefs, and the force behind Salt of the Earth in Garfield, which opened this summer. The menu there includes silver-dollar-sized Belgian waffles served with ice cream and candied bacon.

He says the bacon-loving movement has been growing for at least a decade, aided in part by television chefs proclaiming the virtues of the stuff.

"I've never seen a food become popular like this," Sousa says. "It's an almost cult-like following. If you go on Twitter, you'll find thousands of people with 'bacon' in their names." Sousa likes to create bacon powder out of rendered fat and use it to season and garnish countless dishes.

Ask the average "Yinzer on the street" for his or her thoughts on bacon, chances are that eyes will light up and a heartfelt testimonial will follow. It's a food that inspires passion.

"It really is the candy of meats," says Heather Adams of Wilkinsburg.

Chuck Lazzini of South Fayette sees only a little room for improvement. "The only thing that could make bacon better is if it were stuffed and wrapped with more bacon. Then possibly deep-fried."

Jason Mosley knows all about the best ways to serve bacon. The 28-year-old graphic designer is better known to Pittsburghers and bacon fans around the world as Mr. Baconpants, the advocate of all things bacon on his eponymous blog.

His swine-based adventures have taken him to bacon hot spots around the country, and he finds that Pittsburgh ranks high among bacon-loving cities. When he helped bring the Blue Ribbon Bacon Tour here in 2009, more than 100 people attended even though the city was still recovering from the G-20 summit. Pittsburghers cheered and chanted for bacon, and during the eating contest someone chomped down three pounds in three minutes.

It was so successful that Mosley organized a Bacon Bash 2010 in August that was celebrated, naturally, at the Harris Grill — which already goes through 60-90 pounds of bacon on a normal Tuesday.

Bacon is a joy to eat, but it's far from a guiltless pleasure. Along with copious amounts of fat and cholesterol, it contains plenty of sodium and nitrates, which recent studies have identified as potential carcinogens.

Like most delicious things, it has to be enjoyed in moderation.

"I don't eat as much bacon as some people might think," Mr. Baconpants confesses. "I love bacon, but I'd also like to live a long life. My rule is that I usually only have bacon when I'm dining out."

Similarly, Sousa hasn't gone completely nuts with bacon on his menu because, "I'm not trying to kill people."

Bad or not, bacon isn't going away any time soon. It's just too tasty and too versatile. How many other foods are just as delicious atop an ice cream sundae or in a cupcake as they are on a hamburger or in a salad?

As Emily Town, of Aspinwall, notes, "Did you know that you can connect bacon to every other food in way less than six steps?"

Bacon Night is every Tuesday at the Harris Grill, 5747 Ellsworth Ave. in Shadyside. 412-362-5273

A bacon-topped Belgian waffle with ice cream• Yes, please! Try one at Salt of the Earth, 5523 Penn Ave. in Garfield. 412-414-9088

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