Hog wild for bacon at BaconFest

There’s a saying that ‘everything is better with bacon’ (there’s even a Facebook page devoted to it). Whether you’re on the bacon bandwagon or not, there’s no denying the fact that people tend to go bonkers for tasty bacon.  Now more than ever, cities from Atlanta to Sacramento aren’t shy about embracing their love of the delicious pork product, organizing high-energy events to celebrate everything bacon.

If there’s any question people take their bacon seriously look no further than Chicago.

This past weekend 3,000 bacon lovers spent the day devouring bacon inspired creations from Chicago’s top chefs and restaurants.  Easily one of the hottest tickets in town, BaconFest Chicago sold out in only three hours online.  Keep in mind, this is the type of event where people don’t mind smelling like bacon and poetry contestants get serious respect if they can rhyme about swine.

“It tastes good, it’s so versatile. You can use it as foundation for anything. It always incites passion… and the chefs go crazy for it.”

— Seth Zurer, co-founder of BaconFest Chicago

This year’s event doubled in size from last year, featuring a total of 108 restaurants, split between lunch and dinner sessions.  My lunch menu went something like this: peppered bacon wrapped pork wing with bourbon coffee bbq sauce, Porkpalooza burger, smoked bacon baklava,  bacon custard filled bacon beignet and bacon pancake pops in a bourbon glaze. And because bacon makes you thirsty, it only made sense to wash it all down with a “Wobble Stopper”  bloody mary (includes bacon). Baconfest-goer Sam Sansome from Salisbury, England summed the drink up best by saying, “they are bloody good, aren't they.”

Bacon connoisseur, Rena Freeman fell for the bacon rice crispies cereal with flavored milks. (Think milk flavors your mom would not approve of like, chocolate-peanut butter & Captain Crunch.) “I love bacon so much. It kind of makes me melt a little bit,” she said. Freeman admits she once flirted with the idea of giving up eating meat, but then reconsidered. “I thought I was a vegetarian for a minute and bacon brought me back.”

Of course, BaconFest isn’t complete without tiny samples of “Bacon Crack,” chocolate covered bacon covered toffee.  And yes, it tastes as good as it sounds.  Others satisfied their sweet and salty cravings with “cuffins” (cookie-muffins) topped with Jack Daniel glaze and chocolate covered bacon.

Georgia Kay, 12, came to BaconFest with her Mom wearing a hand knitted bacon scarf.  Clearly there’s no need to question her love for bacon. “I love it (bacon) with all of my heart,” Kay told me as she polished off a sample of bacon-shepherds pie. Next up on her bacon-eating agenda: bacon popcorn, bacon egg rolls and possibly some bacon grenades (mini bacon-bombs beer battered and deep fried).

Where does our obsession with bacon come from? BaconFest Chicago’s co-founder, Seth Zurer explains bacon this way. “It tastes good, it’s so versatile. You can use it as foundation for anything. It always incites passion… and the chefs go crazy for it.” Zurer was hesitant to choose his favorite dish but gave two thumbs up to the event’s overall award winner:  bacon thai chile gulab-jamun (think sweet & spicy donuts) topped with bacon pistachio brittle. “I found it fascinating!” Zurer said.

Head further South and you’ll find two more cities where the passion for bacon and barbecue is no joke.

Atlanta’s BaconFest is best described with three B’s “Beer. Bands. Bacon.” If you go, expect a full day dedicated to “pigging out”.  This year’s event (March 31) sold out quickly with tickets ranging from $25 - $85 depending on how much bacon you can stomach.  The “awesome entertainment” includes crowning a bacon king and queen and a silent auction benefiting Dad’s Garage, the local theater company that organizes the event every year. One of the unexpected highlights at this year’s 12th annual fest was a much different kind of bacon –actor Kevin Bacon, who dropped by on his day off from filming his latest project. Bacon later tweeted, “Best BaconFest ever.”

Knoxville, Tennessee  devotes an entire weekend to all things bacon.  A group of friends came up with the idea three years ago. What started “as a bourbon and bacon house party has grown into a weekend celebrating swine,” says event organizer, Laura Sohn owner of Mockingbird Events. Last year’s fest (September 2011) sold out with roughly 200 people. “The event is designed to be a small, boutique event celebrating Allan Benton (Tennessee’s famous bacon maker) and top chefs throughout the southeast.” And what’s BaconFest without some friendly competition – past fests have featured contests such as, “Best Use of Bacon Grease” and “Most Pork/Bacon Used In a Dish.”  If that doesn’t make you crave a little bacon, I’m not sure what will.

Iowa knows bacon, so it’s no surprise the Iowa State Fairgrounds in Des Moines, is home to the annual Blue Ribbon Bacon Festival. The event’s homepage appropriately greets you with: “Did You Survive Baconpocolypse?”  This year’s event in February attracted 4,000 people, making it by far the “largest gathering of bacon enthusiasts” with “more bacon than you could ever dream,” according to event organizers. Vendor Nick Spencer with Spencer’s Jolly Posh Foods traveled all the way from England to promote and sell his bacon and sausage. “We were handing out whole strips of bacon. It was just gluttonous consumption. We brought 200 pounds of bacon with us.” This year’s menu included: pork tacos, bacon-wrapped jalapenos, bacon butterscotch cupcakes and bacon-infused donut balls covered in chocolate.

Hungry yet?