It’s rare for an event dedicated to the love of a particular greasy food to aspire to be more meaningful than gluttonous. It’s even rarer to discover that a well-respected bacon gathering has been inspired, in part, by Jewish summer camp. But that’s precisely what distinguished Camp Bacon, a 3-day event put on by Zingerman’s Community of Businesses, in Ann Arbor, Mich., from most other food festivals.
Zingerman’s is a celebrated food institution in the Midwest. Founded in 1982 as a delicatessen and boutique grocery by two Jews, Ari Weinzweig and Paul Saginaw, Zingerman’s now consists of a family of businesses—a bakery, a creamery, a mail-order site, etc.—and plays a central role in Ann Arbor’s food scene. They also host Camp Bacon as a fundraiser for the Southern Foodways Alliance (SFA), an organization that documents and preserves Southern food culture.
Weinzweig invited me to speak about the pork industry in Israel at the weekend’s main event, hosted on the second day (also known as the Sabbath). I’d never been invited to a pork industry event since a) I don’t eat pork and b) talking about the pig taboo while folks are eating bacon can be a bit of a buzz kill. But Weinzweig, well-known for his charismatic and innovative approach to managing his business, sold me on the event by claiming it was unlike any other.
Tall and trim with tight white curls and glasses, Weinzweig does not carry himself like most successful business owners. He is casual, both in his interactions and his dress; he opts for Zingerman’s T-shirts instead of a suit and tie. Well known for his love of history and good food, he began writing food guides covering everything from olive oil to canned sardines. Six years ago he chose to tackle bacon, and what was supposed to be a pamphlet ballooned into a 240-page book, The Zingerman’s Guide to Better Bacon. The idea for the camp started as a thought experiment in the book: What would it look like to bring producers and consumers together in a setting similar to the one he remembered from his childhood days at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin? The camp was to consist of a few events: a five-course bacon dinner (“bacon ball”), a baking class (“baking with bacon”), an 8-hour main event featuring speakers and bacon poetry, and a bacon street festival.
I missed the bacon ball, but arrived on Friday in time for the Baking with Bacon class. I bumped into Weinzweig on my way to the classroom. He greeted me warmly, insisting I join him at the bake shop for a few treats before the session. “Give him the Hungarian Jewish one,” he told the woman at the counter, referring to a strudel pastry, knowing my love of Jewish foods. Once he loaded me up on mandel bread, rugelach, and a delicious cheese hamantasch, we walked over to the baking demo together.
The class was intimate, with 12 participants in attendance. The instructor and six staff members showed the group how to make bacon doughnuts, bacon scones, and bacon farmer pepper bread. Baking with bacon is so wonderful, the consensus seemed to be, because “a little bit goes a long way.”
Unlike the other campers, who were given dough, bits of bacon, and bacon fat, I stood to the side and observed. I wasn’t going to eat the treats, so it didn’t make sense for me to handle the bacon. One of the instructors ran over to me at one point with a bacon scone. I politely declined. “I don’t eat bacon,” I said. She seemed puzzled, but retreated respectfully. The class went on for four hours, and though I chatted with a number of friendly participants, I chose to duck out early. One can lose interest in a baking class when there’s no reward to look forward to.
Things picked up that evening, though, when the out-of-town guests met for dinner at Zingerman’s Roadhouse, the Southern-influenced restaurant a few miles away.
I sat next to bacon producers from Wisconsin and Virginia, as well as a local humane slaughter advocate and an Alabaman woman who gives sewing workshops for a living. Conversations ranged from wholesaling bacon to setting up mail-order businesses to humane slaughter techniques. When asked why I was there, I spoke a bit about my relationship to pork. Natalie from Alabama, it turned out, was well versed in kosher brining methods since she had been married to a Jewish man.
When we ordered, hardly anyone ordered bacon. I had feared I’d be the only one eating fish and salad. I guess my dinner companions had planned for a full day of bacon, and thought best to start out with salad. Yet the kitchen brought maple bacon beer to the table, which Natalie and I declined, offering our glasses to our bacon-producing friends.
When I had settled into bed after my first day of camp, I smelled bacon. Could it be that after just one day my mind was playing tricks on me? Was I craving bacon? No, it was me: I smelled. We had been seated next to the smoker, so the stench of bacon stuck to my clothes and my hair. I went to sleep dreaming of bacon, slightly nervous about what I would possibly be able to eat on the morning of the main event.
I scrubbed extra hard in the shower on the morning of the Main Event to get the stench of bacon off my body. Once showered and dressed, I headed to Zingerman’s Roadhouse for a full day of bacon-related programming.
Breakfast consisted of British bangers, mushrooms sautéed with bacon and, well, just plain old strips of bacon. There was fruit on the table, presumably to aid in digestion of all that fat. It was also my saving grace.
The rest of the day was devoted to presentations and conspicuous bacon consumption. The event attracted about seventy campers from the Midwest, the South, the East Coast and one man from Australia. Any time campers craved bacon, they just had to raise a paddle. Servers would bring over a plate.
The festivities began with introductions from every participant and staff member. Everyone shared his/her favorite ways to eat bacon. A few minutes in, my turn came. “I guess I have to out myself now,” I said. “I’ve never eaten bacon.” The crowd gasped, a number of people laughed and some playfully demanded an explanation.
But I felt welcomed, even as a non-pork eater. It helped that Ari Weinzweig, the master of ceremonies, proudly identifies as Jewish and never failed to bring it up. He started the day by telling his story: He grew up in an observant Jewish home. When he and his friends were kids at summer camp, they would do “all sorts of bad things, like smoke,” but running to town to eat bacon wasn’t even on his radar. When he was working in a restaurant in his early 20s, he finally crossed the bacon divide.
A few of the top bacon producers in the country presented, including Sam Edwards, from Edwards of Surry, Virginia, a family-owned and run operation since 1926, and Bob Nueske of Nueske’s in Wisconsin, the man introduced as the “Johnny Cash of bacon.” Edwards and Nueske explained how their families first entered the business, discussed the details of production (though Nueske was a bit tight-lipped about his proprietary secrets) and shared a general enthusiasm for their work. Both men dismissed more conventional, commercial brands of bacon, not in that obnoxious Pollan-esque fashion, but as third generation bacon producers who can spot poor quality a mile away.
I shared my story early on, including my reasons for not eating pork, the pork taboo and the details of my journey through Israel’s pork industry. I wasn’t sure how my story would go over. Was it uncouth to spend thirty-plus minutes discussing the pork taboo to an audience that was literally eating bacon as I spoke? Would my jokes land?
After my talk, a few campers revealed to me that they were Jewish. One man in his late 20s told me that he now understands his Jewish friend’s anxiety when they go to Vegas together. Sam Edwards, the bacon producer, said to me, “when you cross that line,” referring to the fact that I have not yet tried bacon, “give me a call.”
Later that morning the king of prosciutto, Herb Eckford, stood up to speak. Eckford’s talk was one of the highlights for me. I met him the day before at the dinner for out-of-town guests. After overhearing my conversation, he said to me, “We should talk. I’m the best Jewish prosciutto maker in the world. Definitely in the US.” When Weinzweig introduced Eckford that morning, he said, “look, another Jewish guy who makes pork for a living.”
Eckford, with his parted gray-hair, shorts and flip-flops, admitted that he got to the pork business later then his colleagues in the room. He took his inspiration from eating in Italy; he wanted to bring that feeling of enjoyment to the US. At the time, it was illegal to import prosciutto di Parma, and prosciutto is what really inspired him. He took his inspiration from the Italian oak trees that produced acorns that fed the pigs, and he named his business La Cuercia, Italian for oak.
By lunchtime, after the moving video about pig ear sandwiches in Jackson, Mississippi, Smokes and Ears, produced by the Southern Foodways Alliance, the fruit plate I had earlier could no longer sustain me. I was hungry.
I inspected the offerings. Only the salad was bacon-less. It was then that the restaurant’s chef, Alex Young, noticed my empty plate. “Can I get you anything?” he asked. “I don’t want to be that guy who goes to Camp Bacon and orders the fish,” I said. He laughed. He said, “it’s no problem,” and he went off to prepare a special course of grilled walleye and mashed potatoes. (The service is really that good at Zingerman’s.)
After what turned out to be a terrific lunch, there were more presenters, including Natalie Chanin, a well-known seamstress from Alabama who taught a session on sewing with bacon, a British producer of back bacon in Chicago, a poet who read poems in-between longer talks, a presentation about Iberico Hams from Spain and one slideshow on humane slaughter. Finally, Eve Aronoff, a well-known Jewish chef of Top Chef fame, led a cooking demo for a special sauce to serve on a Cuban roast pork roasted using a Caja China, a Chinese box.
Once Aronoff finished her talk, I started to say my goodbyes. In just a couple of days I felt like a real community had developed. While I was sad to be missing the street fair the following day, I was glad to be a part of the real heart of the weekend. Camp Bacon, in the end, was one of the most thoughtful events I have ever been a part of. Its partnership with the Southern Foodways Alliance grounded it in stories, in culture and integrity. The planners managed to toe the line between playful and meaningful in precisely the right way.
I collected my swag – a Camp Bacon t-shirt, bacon-flavored mints, a few Camp Bacon postcards – and headed to Detroit’s airport. After eight hours in the room beside the smoker, I would smell bacon on all of my belongings for days.
As I returned to my everyday life, I felt a bit like a kid coming home from real summer camp, thinking back to the new friends I had made, the novel experiences and all the ways I’ve grown. I have a feeling I’ll be back at camp next year. In the meantime, I’ll think about my new friends whenever I go for brunch and smell the apple wood or cherry wood or hickory-smoked bacon sizzling on the griddle.