Why do you eat that stuff? There’s no food in your food.—Joan Cusack as Constance Dobler in Say Anything
The Chef and I recently caught the tail end of an infomercial on the telly touting the miracles of a small kitchen appliance made to take the place of no fewer than ten other small appliances, trumpeted the announcer. It looked like cheap crap from China if you ask me, but what do I know. We speculated on who buys this kind of thing. Hoarders, I offered. But in the next breath, I said, actually, maybe my mom. After all, she bought a contraption called a Baconer back in the 1970s, or maybe she got it with Green Stamps, can’t recall.
“What the hell is a Baconer?” The Chef wanted to know.
I went on to describe it for him. Imagine, I said, a small appliance that resembles a skinny toaster, same basic shape, but with two metal panels that fall open and then close together over it, fastening at the top. (I used lots of pantomime to help paint this picture.) Inside the doors is a monolith-like thing that’s basically a Teflon-coated heating element, I explained. You drape the strips of bacon over it, close the doors, and press play. When the cook cycle finishes, you open the panels to reveal perfectly crisped bacon, ostensibly healthier because the grease has dripped off instead of puddling up around it as it would in a fry pan. You remove a tray underneath the whole business to clean out the grease.
Funny thing is, I said, bacon cooked this way emerges in the shape of a long, metal staple of the kind you’d load into a heavy-duty construction-style stapler, and not in a thin strip. So imagine your Saturday morning breakfast plate piled high with scrambled eggs and biscuits, maybe, and then a few of these staple-shaped slices of bacon plunked next to them. Not exactly an elegant presentation.
That’s not the end of the Baconer story though. My ballerina mama didn’t really acquire the thing to make marginally better-for-you bacon, or to simplify cleanup, but instead to make fake bacon in it. At the time she was experimenting with food-ish that resembled Actual Food, in an effort to eat healthier, so she thought. And in every culinary experiment like this, we—my brother and I—were test subjects, a condition already familiar to us thanks to dad, who worked for one of Proctor & Gamble’s subsidiary companies. P&G was also inclined to beta test new products on families of its employees. Pringles potato chips, Pampers disposable diapers, and several iterations of Ivory soap: We’d been down all these roads before.
The Chef wanted to know what was in the fake bacon. I don’t know for certain, I said, but I’m guessing it was some kind of soy product. What I do know is it was chock-full of red dye, with a bit of creamy white resembling marzipan, to make it look like an authentic strip of bacon with a wedge of fat on one side.
I suspect that the sum total of this experiment—the questionable ‘bacon’ ingredients, the food coloring, and even the PFOAs in the Teflon coating on the machine itself—amounted to a toxic nightmare far worse for us than whatever’s in any self-respecting helping of real bacon.
There had been other food experiments. One time she got ahold of a magazine article about how Eastern Europeans were healthier and lived longer than Americans because they ate a lot of cheese and yogurt. Suddenly our fridge was full of cheese and yogurt. And when my brother developed a rogue staph infection that dangerously lodged inside one of his hips, and had to stay in traction in the hospital for a few days, we toted our cheese and yogurt up to his room so we could go right on eating it while we sat there and held his hand, so we could live long, healthy lives like the Eastern Europeans.
When Chef David and I first met nearly a decade ago, he was excited that now he might learn something about Southern cuisine from a genuine Southerner. Nope, sorry, I lamented to him. I grew up on a diet of chewing gum and Tab.
It’s true. This is what happens when your mama dances in a ballet company and needs to stay, you know, skinny. Our kitchen was outfitted with a long pass-through window that opened into a family room a couple of steps down below it. In the pass-through was a countertop, and at either end was an apothecary-style glass jar, one with a glazed green lid, and the other yellow. On our grocery run each week mom bought one giant sleeve each of Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit and Spearmint gum. My brother and I were tasked with opening the sleeves when we came home, and emptying each package of gum inside it, painstakingly, and finally filling each of the jars with loose sticks of gum—Juicy Fruit in the yellow one and Spearmint in the green.
If we got hungry between meals, we could have a Tab and a stick of gum, maybe a Pop-Tart if we were really desperate. By the way, that pairing, the bitter saccharine in the Tab and the cloying sweetness of sugar in the gum, is an affront to the palate. At least until you’ve sucked all the sugar out of the gum. Disgusting, I know.
I stepped into my life as an adult knowing precious little about how to prepare meals besides pouring hot water over some freeze-dried goop or ripping open a package to pop its factory-processed contents into the oven or microwave. Fortuitously, at that same moment one Martha Stewart was coming into her own as my generation’s Julia Child, except her expertise ultimately reached beyond preparing beautiful food to encompass gracious living as a whole. It was in thumbing through the glossy pages of her Entertaining tome, standing in a small gourmet store where I worked in my undergraduate years, that a new world revealed itself to me, one I embraced and ultimately shared with my own kid during my parenting years. (He is all grown up now and not only comfortable in his own kitchen, but far more of a culinary expert than I was as a twenty-something.) I never even attempted to bake my great-grandmother Gracie’s biscuits, in fact, until I had fairly well immersed myself in the Martha Stewart lifestyle.
Food should have food in it, and so it does, in this household, including real bacon from time to time, and not the fake stuff. The Chef in fact brought home the bacon on Friday night and transformed it into this lovely dinner of German potato salad, steamed artichokes, and tomato with fresh moz and caramelized red onion piled onto a portobello mushroom cap.
I don’t know much about cuisine in Eastern Europe; I’ve always kind of admired the French and the Italians for how they prepare and seem to savor food in a way that sometimes eludes us here. I do have a Baconer in my American kitchen, though. He doesn’t come with a warranty, but he does have mad knife skills.