The 2nd annual Big Bite Bacon Festival descended upon a large parking lot in Long Beach this past weekend, in the shadow of the Queen Mary, the massive 1936 cruise liner that's now permanently moored in Long Beach harbor and now contains a hotel, some restaurants, lots of old pictures of Bob Hope, and assorted other tourist attractions. Nearby, an enormous geodesic dome that once housed Howard Hughes' bizarre, ginormous flying boat, the "Spruce Goose."
Two days of more porkalicious goodness than you can swing a pig at
Touted as "two days of more porkalicious goodness than you can swing a pig at," the Big Bite Bacon Festival boasted "bacon heaven with dishes beyond your wildest dreams...bacon filled Twinkies, candied bacon cotton candy, bacon ice pops, bacon waffles, bacon churros, bacon hog pockets, and bacon burgers." Last year's festival sold out, and promoters expanded this year's festival to include more vendors, more tasting sessions, and of course, more bacon.
I took an Uberpool Saturday morning from my apartment in Silver Lake to the venue location in Long Beach. For the record, the fare was $24. To freaking Long Beach. I don't know what kind of deal-with-the-devil baby sacrifice shit is going on with Uber, but there's no way $24 could possibly make any financial sense at all. That's $10 in gas, easy. My driver, Matt, was telling me how he'd come to L.A. less than a year ago from Oklahoma, Tom Joad-style, and that he'd just gotten punked the other day by a bunch of idiots with a YouTube channel who hide cameras in bushes and summon cars on Lyft and Uber so they can play tricks on the driver. Sounded pretty awful. I asked him if he felt like accompanying me to the fest. He agreed, and in we went.
I asked him if he felt like accompanying me to the fest. He agreed.
"Wow, look at this!" he said when we arrived, "I've always heard about the Queen Mary and wanted to visit, and I love bacon, so this is great!" We picked our VIP "goodie bags," which literally contained some Kettle-brand potato chips, a plastic shot glass, and that's it, and went inside. (The admission price, incidentally, was $40; a VIP ticket ran $70 and got you access to, well, not very much: the potato chips, which would have been lame anyway, made even more lame by the fact that Kettle had a booth at the festival and anyone could get them, as well as a cordoned off area where you were allowed to buy water for $2, some fake leather couches and a couple of dessert vendors.)
Matt was psyched, though, and eagerly went after the first vendor we saw, downing half of a pork sausage in about five seconds. "Hey man," I called after him, "you need to pace yourself. Seriously."
People watching is, as you might imagine, excellent. Lots of bacon's target demographic, i.e. the heavy-set bearded white guy, but also people from all walks of life who straight-up love bacon. Middle school teacher Laurie Russo showed up with her daughter and sporting bacon-patterned Chuck Taylors and a shirt that read, "EXERCISE... exercise...exarsize...eggs are sides...for bacon!" She said she owned bacon shoes, socks, shirts, lanyards, earrings, and a crochet scarf pattern. "On Thanksgiving I told my middle schoolers, 'I wish everyone loved bacon because then there'd be world peace!'" she said, declining to state exactly how that would bring about world peace.
Uber driver Matt asked her if her love of bacon had any limits; knew any boundaries whatsoever. She paused and said thoughtfully, "I don't know... maybe seafood. I don't really like seafood." That was where Laurie Russo drew the line: not even bacon could make seafood palatable.
Our national enthusiasm with bacon is already well documented. No other food obsession is taken to such extremes, or elicits such pride and delight amongst its propagators. There's chicken fried bacon, bacon-infused bourbon, bacon-flavored personal lubricant, bacon soda, and seaweed that's been genetically engineered to taste like bacon. Some enthusiastic Canadians made a Stanley Cup out of bacon. The site Bacolicious lets you put a giant strip of bacon onto any website on your browser.
Bacon socks, hats, shirts, shoes, earrings, and other accessories are now so common as to almost be a punchline. The fascination with the cured pork product seems to be the nexus of flavor (bacon tastes good; few people will disagree with that) and food voyeurism; the apotheosis of the notion that if one food is good, putting that food onto every other food must be better.
And that seemed to be the attitude of most of the people I spoke to — that because bacon has good flavor, stuffing, infusing, and sprinkling it onto everything else is a natural and desirable corollary. Indeed, it seems to be something of a mantra: "Everybody knows everyone loves bacon and everything is better with bacon," said Jana Nelson, COO of Big Bite Events. "If I could eat it for every meal, I would." When I mentioned to her that, well, she probably could eat bacon for every meal if she really wanted to, she replied, "I could... but then my cholesterol would be really high. And the insides wouldn't look all that great." She motioned to her torso with an open hand and made a circular motion.
And that's the kicker, really, even for the most avid bacon lover: bacon is terrible for you. Almost 70% of bacon's calories come from fat. Half of those fats are saturated. One strip of bacon has about 30 mg of cholesterol, or about a tenth of what the USDA recommends per day.
There's something really, really good about being so bad
Alison Maas, sales manager of the Hard Rock Cafe on Hollywood Blvd., suggested that that might have something to do with the appeal: that there's something really, really good about being so bad, especially in such a health conscious place as Southern California. "Wait a minute," she said as she was sprinkling bacon bits on the whipped cream that topped some kind of alcoholic milkshake she was preparing at the Hard Rock booth, "you're not one of those people who don't like bacon, are you?"
She smiled as she said it, but she was a little suspicious of the nature of the questions I was asking: why are people so into bacon? No, really, why? "Of course I love bacon," I stammered, "I love BLTs, I adore bacon, I just don't understand why you have to put bacon on everything..." She stared at me, nonplussed. I could see I was approaching something very close to heresy, so I backed off.
Bacon has never not been popular in the South, or rural areas. Let's just be clear about that. It's in other parts of the country though, our large cities, that the phenomenon has been somewhat more recent. Dr. Atkins and the low-carb craze of the last couple decades has certainly something to do with it, as well as a concerted effort by the pork industry and fast food chains to put bacon on top of everything.
A rebellion against quinoa and kale; the Cafe Ingratitude, if you will.
But there's something very purposeful about the artery-busting oneupsmanship of the Bacon Fest, where the entire purpose feels, to a large extent, to create the most repulsive and, simultaneously, most enticing food item. A rebellion against quinoa and kale; the Cafe Ingratitude, if you will. A deep-fried Twinkie stuffed with bacon from the Fry Fry Truck? I mean, you've gotta at least try it, right? (For the record, it tasted pretty good. Exactly like a deep-fried Twinkie. Stuffed with bacon.) Rick Garcia of Dia De Los Puercos, however, created the most abominable/alluring food item of the festival, with a peanut butter, jelly, and banana sandwich that was stuffed with bacon, deep fried, rolled in cinnamon and sugar, and drizzled with condensed milk.
I took a small bite and my mouth was so confused/worried for my safety that it wouldn't allow me take another. Matt snarfed down the whole thing, against my protestations. Five minutes later, he was down for the count: "Ohhh," he moaned, "that sandwich really did it to me. I think I need to take a break."
Here's what was good about the festival: there were some pretty excellent food from many of the vendors, including Hawkins House of Burgers, Bigmista's Barbecue, QuesaDivas (outstanding name AND good food), grilled bacon-wrapped chicken from Mexico City Cuisine, and others.
Things seemed, by and large, to run pretty smoothly. Festival coordinators were helpful, and people were friendly. The lines for food were short — barely any wait for most items, and, from what I saw, no one ran out of things (this was a huge, huge upgrade from last year, at least according to Big Bite Bacon Fest's Yelp reviews). Also a nice touch was that you could go walk around the Queen Mary and pretend like you're your favorite Titanic character. ("You shine up like a new penny!")
The other side of the fest; the more perplexing side, is harder to define. While love of bacon certainly seems to spur on a kind of creativity among chefs, the continuing race to Put Bacon Into Things Where You Don't Really Expect Or Necessarily Want Bacon seems to ultimately be shooting oneself in the foot. Yes, bacon tastes good. Bacon also has an overwhelmingly powerful taste. When put on anything else, bacon tends to make that things taste like, surprise, bacon. Do you like donuts? But some bacon on it and make your donuts taste like bacon. Like cotton candy? Spin some bacon bits in it so it'll taste like bacon! Popsicles? Beer? Ice cream? Ditto.
I dared to try the "pork and beans latte" from Frijolito's Mobile Coffee truck expecting to have to spit it out, but actually being somewhat pleasantly surprised. It just kind of tasted like a regular latte. I said that to one of the women working the truck and she replied, "Oh, I can put some more rendered bacon fat into that if you'd like me to. Want me to do that?" Matt and I smiled at her and said no, thank you, put our cups down, and left the festival.