Nixon, Agnew, better start shakin’
Today’s pig is tomorrow’s bacon.
So the American youth would chant at the police during demonstrations against the Vietnam War in the early 1970s when I first came to the United States. Although their anti-war feelings were sincere, the specific threat was mostly bluster; and humorous, if one thinks about it, since so many of the same youth were vegetarians professing a commitment to non-violence. Still, as a new immigrant, I first associated bacon with The Man.
Since the two biggest religions in India eschew pork, it’s no surprise that I didn’t grow up with bacon, except during our infrequent visits to England, where it was an essential element of the massive fry-ups that my uncles and aunts would dish up as if trying to make up for all those years of missed sausage-and-bacon-loaded breakfasts.
British bacon was substantial and satisfying, thick, greasy, and full of taste and texture. It was to U.S. bacon what chunky British chips are to McDonald’s skinny fries. Same with British sausages, or bangers: if you ate one for breakfast, duly salted and doused with malt vinegar, it would be a long time before you felt the pangs of hunger again. Compare a sizzling, spitting, splitting sausage, fried in its own fat, to a bald, shiny boiled frank. No contest.
Bacon and sausages are not just a food in Britain, they’re an institution. During our three-month sojourn in England in 1963, my cousin Lesley taught me a game called Sausages and Mash (after the popular national dish). It’s easy to play: just pick up any book and start reading out loud, simply substituting “sausage” for every word that begins with the letter S and “mash” for every word beginning with the letter M. The effects are hilarious.
Not long after we emigrated to the U.S. I followed my boyfriend’s lead and became a vegetarian and a health freak to boot. Despite the prevalence of pork products in the States, I steered clear of bacon and sausages, especially after I learned that they were loaded with cholesterol and noxious nitrites. But I made an exception whenever I returned to England, telling myself that I couldn’t possibly hurt my family’s feelings, and besides, it was my duty to honor my ethnic heritage. In fact, I loved bacon, and lived for those rare occasions when I tucked into a generous rasher on a hunk of fried bread.
On my first return visit to England after we had emigrated, my Auntie Bette sent me back with a pound of Sainsbury’s best pork sausages for “my poor sister over in America where they can’t get a decent sausage for love or money.” I knew they were controlled substances, but I didn’t have the heart (or the chutzpah) to disappoint my aunt. I hoped against hope that U.S. customs would pass me over at Logan Airport, but no such luck. Sure enough, a burly customs agent inspected my bulging carry-on bag, which soon disgorged a plump parcel, wrapped in waxed paper and tied tightly with string. When he opened it and his eyes lit on its glistening contents, they too gleamed in greedy anticipation. “Sorry ma’am, these have to be confiscated,” he crowed, looking anything but sorry. For a moment I seriously considered fighting for my aunt’s most deeply-held beliefs, but then decided to let them go for fear of causing an international incident. Back at home, unpacking my bulging suitcase full of creamline toffees, boxes of Quality Street and Black Magic chocolates, and jars of Marmite (blacker still), I couldn’t bring myself to tell my mother what she had lost. I never told my aunt either.
Years later, she had her revenge. For a meat afficionado like Auntie Bette, vegetarians were a personal affront and a challenge. She had always liked Andrew, but in rejecting meat he had gone too far. Her strategy was masterful. She knew perfectly well that he was a vegetarian, but also knew that he made an exception for fish-’n-chips, and that he was shy and polite. So she ordered a large cod-and-chips from her favorite fish shop down on the Caledonian Road, but secretly slipped in a long, pink, grade-A-sized saveloy “as a special treat.” (I had never seen a saveloy before then, and had only heard of them in Food, Glorious Food from Oliver with the ominous lyrics: Pease pudding and saveloys, what next is the question/Rich gentlemen have it boys, In-di-gestion!) Andrew was struck dumb with dismay and could only look down helplessly at the disgusting thing lying heavily on top of his chips, and then over at me imploringly. As soon as my Aunt stepped out of the room I acted swiftly to scoop up the offending item and slip it onto my plate, and then, in short order, into the bin. When Aunty Bette returned a few seconds later she found Andrew’s plate entirely saveloy-free. Either her opinion of my boyfriend rose several notches, or she understood all and decided that he’d suffered enough, for she said not a word.
Funnily enough, Aunty Bette’s husband, my Uncle Bill, had had a similarly embarrassing experience when we’d all gone to an Indian restaurant together in London a few years before, a swanky restaurant in Hampstead where you could take your pick of dozens of delectable dishes. But what did my dear Glaswegian uncle order? Steak. Understandably, it wasn’t a house speciality, although they tried to oblige. They could never have measured up to Uncle Bill’s standards even if they had been the Savoy, because only my Aunt made steak the way he liked it. But dear Uncle Bill was like Andrew in that he hated to give offence. He made a show of welcoming the steak when it was served, but I happened to look over at him at the very moment when he was surreptitiously slipping the whole thing, wrapped in a paper serviette, into his pocket, to be given to the dog later on.
I still feel about saveloys the way Monty Python’s Graham Chapman felt about spam, and can do without sausages as well—at least, most of the time. But bacon is another matter. Every so often, I’ve gotta have it, simple as that. For a long time I was in denial of this basic truth, firm in the belief that crispy-fried, sodium-nitrite-cured strips of pork belly were the devil itself, but I was disabused of my self-righteousness twenty years ago, on a marathon 22-hour Greyhound bus trip to southern Georgia. (See my story Southbound for another account of that trip.) I was a penniless graduate student attending one of my first academic conferences, and couldn’t afford to fly. I had been up writing my paper the whole night before the trip, was kept sleepless the first night on the bus by the heart-rending screams of a infant who sounded as if it was being tortured, and by the second night I was wracked by a splitting headache so bad that I wondered how I was possibly going to deliver my paper the next morning.
In the middle of the night the bus stopped, as all Greyhound busses do, at a rundown pitstop in a seamy section of a sleepy southern town. We straggled off the bus into the dreary cafeteria and I followed my fellow-passengers to an ancient steamtable with congealed gravies, gray vegetables, slices of pot pie filled with unidentifiable meats—and bacon. The bacon consisted of a few burnt-looking, dried-out strips, but I swear, it spoke to me. I heard the unmistakeable call—Eat me! Wretched with my pounding headache and three nights of sleeplessness, I was helpless to resist. When I reached the top of the line I found myself ordering a cup of tea and a side of bacon. I slid into a flyblown booth with cracked vinyl seat covers, and tackled the bacon as if there was no tomorrow. Then came the miracle: my headache was cured instantaneously and completely, not just for the moment, but for the entire rest of the journey. Those miserable-looking strips of meat had something that I needed; whether I wanted to admit it or not, they literally saved my bacon.
I still steer clear of pork as a rule. But to this day, when all else fails, I resort to bacon (nitrite-free, of course). No matter how politically or nutritionally suspect, it never lets me down.