For the past ten months, we have been on the search for the perfect bacon. We’ve tried organic bacon, applewood smoked bacon, bacon from Whole Foods, bacon from the Market, imported bacon, and the cheapest bacon available at the grocery store down the street. They have all pleased us — it is bacon — but not one has been the platonic ideal of bacon that our mouths have been imagining.
Why is it that we sometimes have to go so far from home before we realize what we have?
A & J Meats sits six blocks from our home. When I walk into the wood-panelled room with glass display cases, I feel like I have walked into a butcher’s shop from the 1950s. The tops of the cases are lined with bottles of locally made tartar sauce, barbeque spices in tins, and an old-fashioned ticket dispenser for the customers who throng into the place. Milling about the store are neighborhood moms and dads, their toddlers running toward the hot dogs. If it is Saturday morning, then the woman in her eighties comes in for a single lamb chop; she is given preferential treatment, because she has been a customer at the shop longer than some of the butchers have been working there. Behind the counters walk friendly men and women in crisp white aprons, ready with smiles and advice. I ask my favorite butchers — one of whom is a woman — what is good that day. This curiosity and trust led me to cook my first flank steak, pork tenderloin, and duck breast. Every time, the butchers walked me through the process of searing or roasting, both with their handouts copied on colored paper and their murmured words of encouragement. Even if the meat shrink-wrapped in supermarkets is slightly cheaper, the personal service I receive at A&J’s is worth the extra cost.
And the bacon? Oh, the bacon. It is dense with meaty flavor — how do I name the flavor of bacon? smoky? earthiness? a certain chew? In the days when I was a teacher, I probably would have brought bacon in for my students and asked them to chew some and describe it. But me? I’m stymied. There’s some elusive depth that is beyond my comprehension. Maybe that’s why I go back to it. Exploring the infinite wisdom of bacon.
Have you ever noticed how much fat is in commercial bacon? Some brands, it seems that each slice is swathed with white fat, with only a thin thread of pink meat to make it seem that you are eating bacon. But A and J’s? Well, look at it. Of all the bacons I have eaten lately, this one is the most bacony.
The other day, when I stopped by for another half pound, I asked a silly question of one of the butchers. “Where do you find this stuff?”
He looked up at me, puzzled, and then said, “We make it ourselves.” Take some pork belly, brine it in sugar and spices, let it sit, and then slice it thick.
Oh that’s right. Every butcher used to do this — make their own meat.
If you live in Seattle, no matter what part, it’s worth a trip to A and J’s. Aside from the apricot pork sausage and the house-cured brisket and the top sirloin so juicy it just glistens? You really just need to buy some bacon.
In fact, with all this writing, I just figured out what we’re having for breakfast tomorrow.