Once only found alongside eggs, on top of burgers, and wedged between its healthier cousins lettuce and tomato, bacon has quickly made itself the most versatile meat, showing up on cupcakes, garnishing margaritas, and, most recently, infusing the milky goodness of a sundae at Burger King.
Just look at the Blue Ribbon Bacon Festival in Des Moines, Iowa—five years ago, a couple hundred people showed up to its first iteration. This year, the festival sold out all of its 4,800 tickets in just 24 minutes and has spawned offshoot festivals in North Carolina, Colorado, and Iceland. People came from more than 30 states, and next year, organizers are likely going to put the festival outside to accommodate increasing demand.
"We tried bacon-wrapped whale in Iceland, it was probably the weirdest thing I've ever had," says Brooks Reynolds, founder of the festival. "Who doesn't love bacon? It takes me back to eating a BLT on my parents' back deck as a kid. I think it's always been a popular food, but it's not just for breakfast anymore."
It's now for breakfast, lunch, dinner, dessert, and after-dinner cocktails. In Washington, D.C., Tex-Mex restaurant Tortilla Coast started serving a frozen bacon pineapple jalapeno margarita earlier this year after manager Bil Anderson was inspired by Jack-in-the-Box's bacon milkshake.
That margarita features Torani bacon syrup, pineapple juice, jalapeno simple syrup, a strip of bacon as garnish and, of course, bacon salt on the rim.
"It seems to have a love-hate thing going on with it. Some people think the jalapeno is a little intense," Anderson says. "You see a lot of bacon products now and we tried to not be cliché about it, to do something that's innovative or different."
Andrea Ramirez, a customer marketing manager with Torani, says that since being introduced in April, 2010, bacon has become one of their more popular syrups, selling on par with flavors such as almond and not lagging too far behind hazelnut.
"We thought it'd be really funny, we were going to make a limited amount and use it at a cocktail show. … It actually sold out within two weeks so we had to do a larger production," Ramirez says.
"The growth on it has been extremely healthy," she added with just a bit of irony.
Ramirez says it took about two months to perfect the flavor, with failed iterations tasting too hammy or too smoky. She says the secret behind the bacon craze is the thought of trying meat in unexpected places.
"It makes people so nutty—when I hear about a bacon sundae, I know I certainly want to try it," she says. "It's something everyone knows isn't good for you but yet it's really delicious and craveable."
Reynolds' so-called "bacon enthusiasts" might also own bacon-flavored toothpaste, candy canes, or chapstick and give it to friends wrapped in bacon-themed gift wrap.
The pork industry has noticed the uptick as well—the National Pork Producers Council spent more than $1.3 million in lobbying in 2011, up from $1.1 million in 2010. According to NPD, a national market research company, the number of Americans who regularly ate bacon increased five percent since 2001 to 37 percent in 2011.
"It's meat candy, it's a passion out there," says Pamela Johnson, director of consumer communications for the National Pork Board. "It's one of the most popular cuts of pork and we see entire days devoted to bacon and all the things you can do with it."
Bacon desserts have shown up in cupcakes, milkshakes, and ice cream around the country—it's also showed up in nightclubs. Seattle's Black Rock Spirits introduced its popular "Bakon" vodka in 2009. It has since won numerous nationwide awards and, according to the company, makes the "perfect Bloody Mary."
But for Reynolds, nothing beats the real thing.
"It comes down to cut and cure," he says, noting that at the Iowa State Fair, you can get a strip of bacon nearly a half inch thick served up on a stick. "It all depends on what kind of flavor profile you're looking for; I like it smoked with applewood, but there's also great hickory bacon; in Texas you can find it mesquite smoked."