When your mother is a catering chef, you learn long before any knife skills or kitchen etiquette one key truth: Bacon is the backbone to any crowd pleaser.
Mom is a tiny woman, but has a fierce knowledge of barnyard meats. And, her creations are the stuff of Pinterest legend. For instance: She taught me to secure a meat-and-ale pie with a tight bacon lattice. Dusting maple crystals atop Sunday morning rashers or pepper bacon was a standard practice. She’s twirled marbled ribbons into muffin tins and filled the cups with mac n’ cheese before baking to crisp succulence. (Those she fed proclaimed her “ingenious.”) She recently cured strips of lamb belly for gloriously meaty sliders. On the list is creating such vegetarian witchcraft as coconut “bacon” from a recipe found online. But foregrounding the foodstuff is not always envelope-pushing: Prosciutto-wrapped melon, a sweet-meets-savory tradition via Italy, is a go-to appetizer. Hash browns never exist without cubed pancetta. In a kind of inverted lipstick-on-a-pig solution, there’s a belief that bacon can make any drab dish fun.
One Saturday was a sharp reminder that food service is not for pretty pictures. Dozens of policemen and firemen were coming and just the two of us were tasked to feed them. By 9 a.m., I whipped up at least seven airpots of coffee. I was beat. They swooped up nearly everything, only passing over six vegetarian sandwiches. Of course, those protein-devoid rejects were to be our lunches later. My face drooped at the thought of rabbiting through leftover lettuce.
Suddenly mom emerged from the walk-in with a packet of something. “These are expiring,” she said, ripping through the plastic. “We may as well…” I peered over and found salvation: a pink sheet of applewood-smoked country bacon. America has come to glorify sliding strips one by one into hot pans on cold mornings, probably while someone nearby thumbs through a newspaper. But cooks create en masse, and so my mother threw a leaf of parchment on a sheet pan, lined up every piece in rows, like heart-stopping soldiers, and shoved them in the oven. The kitchen filled with the scent of smoked fat—and hope.
In minutes, mom grabbed two veggie sandwiches and, selecting several glistening belts with a bare hand from their new grease bath, slid the secret ingredient into place. Mom heard my whines earlier so she packed on the number of layers you’d expect only at Katz’s or Carnegie delis. She built to an altitude that made my eyes pop. Those extra crunchy parts on the outer fringes mingled with soft lettuce. The warm fat seeped into the ciabatta and flecked the intense green of the avocado with porky bliss. It was not a Pinterest-pretty sight: Our excitement created crooked blobs. Smushed together on two wonky chairs, sweat-soaked mother and daughter tore into the meal. We assumed warped postures, making us look less like nice lunch ladies and more like two Gollums caressing the ring. We chomped loudly. Still, my body sang—such is the power of pork.