Sunday, October 30, 2011

Bacon in the End Times of the American Empire

Y'all know I keep a fairly keen weather eye on the American polity and general zeitgeist.  I guess apart from having so many friends there it's for the same sorts of reasons that 2000 years ago a culturally engaged citizen of Judaea might be very keen on knowing what's going on in Rome.  By the way Australia, I'm happy with this analogy as is.  Let's not take it any further and be the birthplace of the next Big Religion, OK?

Anyone who has spent more than an hour on the internet in the last few years will know all about the US-centric phenomenon that is BACON MANIA.  Bacon not just as an object of obscene comestible lust but also as a sort of geeky statement; as kitsch, fashion, an in-crowd/cognoscenti sort of thing, and a mad fad that has spun off more websites, pages and products than a whole room full of young hotshot marketing and Web 2.1 startup nerds could come up with over a chatty hilarious long night of pizza and bucket bongs.  The pizza would have bacon, and possibly the bong water too.

It's a phenomenon already commented upon, certainly, so I shall simply steal the most-quoted paragraph by way of explanation for those who may not be quite aware of the depth to which this bacon mania has infected the suppurating pores of the reeling American Hegemony.

"There is: bacon ice cream; bacon-infused vodka; deep-fried bacon; chocolate-dipped bacon; bacon-wrapped hot dogs filled with cheese (which are fried, then battered and fried again); brioche bread pudding smothered in bacon sauce; hard-boiled eggs coated in mayonnaise encased in bacon -- called, appropriately, the "heart attack snack"; bacon salt; bacon doughnuts, cupcakes and cookies; bacon mints; "baconnaise," which Jon Stewart described as "for people who want to get heart disease but [are] too lazy to actually make bacon"; Wendy's "Baconnator" -- six strips of bacon mounded atop a half-pound cheeseburger -- which sold 25 million in its first eight weeks; and the outlandish bacon explosion -- a barbecued meat brick composed of 2 pounds of bacon wrapped around 2 pounds of sausage."
 ~ Arun Gupta

Hungry at all?  I bet quite a few of you are, such is the power of bacon, and the list goes on.  However I was moved to write when I spotted something so outrageous to my sensibilities that I - link-bait hardened internet denizen of yore that I am - was actually shocked for a second.  It is THIS:

 To save you the trouble of going and being horrified by the product endorsement page, in essence it claims inspiration from a published report on infant brain development pointing out that early stages were vital, that the brain was 60% fats, and that a food very high in fat and protein (bacon being 65% fat) could be of huge value to infants.  They go on:

".....Yet babies are not able to consume this most delicious of meats because they lack teeth and digestive systems that can break down solid foods.  So we consulted with pediatricians and began to experiment with drying and grinding bacon into a fine powder, then applying a patent-pending process to concentrate this powder into the most essential nutrients and ingredients for brain development. This potential infant superfood was then added to a test....."

Claims are subsequently made of amazing functional development.  By now, I hope, you've realised that this is not a real thing.  But many, many people did not when it hit the interwebs in - clue - a very early date in April.  There were two reactions, broadly, and the disgusted one was not really in the majority.  Most people seemed to think it was perfectly OK, miraculous even, a "why didn't someone already think of this" moment.  Huffington Post was certainly taken in, their article starting "So this exists".  It was so wildly successful a ruse that the 'makers', who are a real live company of "bacontrepreneurs" had to publish again saying that "the FDA had pulled the plug" on them and their claims.....and apologised to both those parents who wanted in on the trial release for their kids and the media who were conned.

I recently re-read an article from 2009, one of a few such at around that time, proclaiming that the bacon mania was at an end.  Well, that was wrong.  Still the answers remain for the begging.  Indeed, why?

"But bacon tastes goooood..."

Celebrity chef, traveller, writer and unrepentant omnivore Anthony Bourdain has called bacon a "gateway protein" for its legendary abilities in luring vegetarians back to the fold; but then again he's the guy that gave us the line "If you're slower than me, stupider than me, and you taste good, pass the salt".  It has been said that bacon possesses six ingredient types of umami which elicits an addictive chemical response.  And we all know how totally immersive the practice of modern marketers is now, right?  They now do their jobs right inside the very molecular level of the 'food' that is sold to us every day. The salesmen run the product now, to meet the market.  Or at least the market as they would have it.  It has been a very deliberate ploy on the part of fast food manufacturers especially to create addictive behaviours, leveraging the sort of studies that they knew all about but which we are only finding out about lately that show, for example, that high-calorie foods can be as addictive as cocaine.  There's also that saying in the foodservice industry in the US - "if in doubt, throw in some bacon and some cheese".

But this isn't the reason for bacon mania.  Bacon has pretty much always tasted 'good', even if it did used to actually taste a whole world better than the torture-facility-raised, synthetic-hormone and antibiotic-laden, chemically 'cured' product that passes muster most places these days.
(Garbage in = garbage out, as they say).

The taste and the price (it can be very, very cheap, and is hugely subsidized in the US) stand as enabling factors, but the mania is not caused by them.

I think that bacon mania is a cipher, an outward projection of the mass-consciousness that expresses and encapsulates as a meme a poignantly terrible - or terrifying -  combination of reckless, desperate desire, dashed hopes, a disrupted sense of self-worth and a pernicious, creeping nihilism in modern America.  It has spread beyond that Fair Land's borders to be sure, but it's there that we see its cultural roots and centre.

Bacon is, after all is said and done, Death.  Beyond merely being deceased and partly-decayed flesh, the thing that is modern bacon speaks to us of great darknesses of the soul.  No-one is truly ignorant of the Dark Side of bacon, whether they understand full well the horrors of porcine production facilities (but choose perhaps to avert their inner gaze of conscience therefrom) or simply its misused and overblown role in the average diet as emblem and embodiment of the high-fat, high-salt, health-destroying denial of self-nourishment and the triumph of sensual addiction over personal and social wellbeing.  Everyone knows that in the modern sense, bacon hurts.

Once upon a time not very long ago, the process of raising pigs, mainly done by smallholders in mixed farming, and the timeworn noble tradition of honouring the sacred offering of this life and carrying it forward - preserving the flesh that we might carry over valuable protein, fat and sustenance in leaner times, to augment and enhance our staple foods - was a far more natural practice; one which was well understood and respected.  One which was respectful of the life of the farmer, the butcher and charcuterer, the cook, the consumer and most especially the donor animal, in a way that our industrialization of flesh as product has completely erased.  Bacon used to be a most valued, almost venerated thing.  Perhaps we overeat of bacon partly in some perverse attempt to regain some of that lost meaningfulness in our lives, that more spiritual and communally-sensed sort of nourishment we imbibed at the hearth, the heart of home and community.  Maybe we seek it in this quitessentially concentrated caloric-bonanza superfood.

Most every educated American (so, most of them) know about hog raising today, about the industrialized hell that is the CAFO.  I am struggling to think of a greater insult to all that is natural and sacred, a more egregious blight upon this earth than a Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation, and perhaps the nastiest is the intensive indoor piggery.  I'm not going to even attempt to describe the apocalyptic nightmare that is a modern pig farm of up to 800,000 'production units', or the effects such a life has on the pigs or their soon-to-be-consumed flesh. The effects on human health of living anywhere near these monstrous abominations are legion. That's how so many of the smallholder communities were destroyed; not just by being bought out or monopolistically out-competed by corporations suckling at the teat of government largesse, but simply by building a CAFO nearby, and making all the residents so sick they have to leave.

But for a CAFO to exist, there still has to be a market for the product.

CAFOs, social and farming malpractices aside, the substance itself is now so far removed from being a natural product, so laced with the incredible cocktail of drugs the pigs are fed and all manner of chemicals to cure the meat and - yes - enhance the flavour that has been bred and fed out by a program aimed at producing carcass weight at all costs that most modern bacon is virtually toxic to our bodies in and of itself.  Never mind the overindulgence in fat and salt, the denatured compounds in modern bacon maim our health just as surely.

We love this stuff though, right?

Does the bacon mania exist despite the traumatic blight that is its production and its place as the poster-food of the obesity and other health epidemics sweeping a majority of the population into an increasingly impaired and helpless future - or does it exist in part because of these things?  Is it that we are just dumbly addicted and in a spiral of denial about the ills of baconophilia or is the horror somehow causative?

Bacon is America.  The turkey might be the official mascot of American food, with the whole Thanksgiving rites and so on, but really it should be the pig. The pig speaks to the tough, survivor side of the American image.  Not a particularly elegant animal, but street-smart, resourceful and one of the last animals you'd want to pick a fight with - also, fated to squeal with delight as it wallows in mud.

It's the bad-boy, rebel thing.  Wearing your love of bacon on your sleeve says "fuck you Diet Dictocrats, I'll eat what I want, I can handle anything thrown my way".  Perhaps no food is more guilt-producing than bacon.  Prohibited by different religions, decried as unclean, disdained by doctors and dietitians, and produced in one of the most environmentally rapacious and soul-destroying methods ever devised by man.  But America has a deep and abiding hatred of being told what to do, or not to do, by anyone.  Bacon is bad?  Fuck you, it tastes good, and I can.

Bacon's cheap ubiquity celebrates the American Dream: That everyone has an opportunity to get wealthy and wallow, to live 'high on the hog'; the physical and chemical reactions that such a fullsome rush of flavourful umami and mouthfeel produce elicit an enormous, but fleeting, sense of wellbeing; one that we might well argue is slipping further and further from our grasp as time grinds forward.

For we know, deeply, America knows - everyone knows - that the End Times are nigh.  Climate change, the collapse of the mass hallucination that is global finance and money, overpopulation, water and arable land shortage, peak oil, and every single bit of it directly caused by our profligacy and greed.  Produced by the logical, natural extension of what has come to be the prime underpinning of the American Libertarian Capitalistic Way - self interest.  But while the bacon flows, all is not lost.

We (affluent baconivorous Westerners) can make ourselves morbidly obese and lay waste to the land; modern medical science will save our 'bacon' as diabetes kicks in or we need our second heart bypass.  While America remains the currency leader, in monetary and aspirational culture terms, Americans can choose between their self-protective responses through bacon.  They can haughtily lift a middle finger to the environmental doomsayers and Big Government health do-gooders, or perhaps more softly just self-soothe, with a nice extra serving of salty/sweet, toothsome cured bacon.  And maybe just an extra serve more.  Is there a more perfect solace to be found anywhere in the sensorium of the carnivore than bacon?  We know how far we will go to delude ourselves to get what we need, as addicts.

While the bacon flows, all is not lost?  Yes, but the bacon mania is also a syndrome emanating directly from the certain knowledge that all is very soon to be lost.  We know, at our core, that the CAFO and such modern industrialization of 'food' production took us to a whole new level of arrogance and distance from the world we actually inhabit.  We know, without doubt, that we cannot go on like this. We know that addictive consumption is the root cause of everything wrong with how we live; a neat encapsulation of the self-love we do not make real through moral action, yet crave so powerfully that we compensate by gorging ourselves on the oleaginous fruits of this holocaust, and calling it a good thing.  By shouting the mantra, all together now; "OMG....baaaacooon!!"  It's the only way we can handle the truth.

This is that other definition of decadence.  You know, as in decay.  In the decline of Empires, the pattern is nearly always the same.  Both bread, circuses and sacrificial rites increase; the denial of the imminent reality rupture becomes ever more strident amongst a large swathe of the populace, judging those who would cry out for reason as Cassandras, doomsayers and buzzkillers.

So anyway, for me, bacon is perhaps a perfect summation of all that ails us in society right now.  We treat those pigs with the same attitudes as we treat our fellow man.  And we drool with delight at feasting on the potent flesh of victory over our adversary, and our power over nature.

Still, I don't think it's too late.  We could just, if we get a few things changed pretty radically pretty soon, save our bacon.


My personal bacon recycling fund is still open here:

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