Notable Sandwiches #2: The Bacon Sandwich

A classic British sandwich, and a study in American derangement.

Welcome to the second installment of Notable Sandwiches! In this ongoing and somewhat monumental project, I am going through the ever-changing, living document that is Wikipedia’s List of Notable Sandwiches, in alphabetical order. (The first installment, the American Hero, is here, if you missed it.) There are sandwiches from everywhere and containing everything; it is a thrilling list full of the familiar and the foreign, caviar and herring, donkey meat and Marmite, butter, sprinkles, boiled tongue. I won’t be making all of them — although if you are interested in a project of that ambitious heft, I encourage you to check out Sandwich Tribunal, where a group of cooks and writers have made, consumed and written about an awe-inspiring 454 sandwiches, by my count. (I’ve been obsessed with the List for years, and this is a handy example of convergent evolution.) Today, we are tackling the second sandwich on the List: the bacon sandwich (or bacon butty, sarnie, barm, rowie, bap or muffin), a British staple.

The bacon sandwich is a simple thing. It’s… bacon on bread. I have indeed eaten a bacon sandwich in my life not because I am an Anglophile (although it’s hard to beat a British narrator on an audiobook), but because it’s pretty intuitive to put some bacon on some toast. In the UK, the bacon sandwich, which expats apparently go moon-eyed over — “a uniquely British phenomenon — a cultural icon that unites us all” —is usually eaten with something called “brown sauce,” which seems more appetizing than its name. (Home recipes call for garlic, onions, cayenne, cloves, cinnamon, plums, treacle and dates — it seems to be a pretty complex flavor, sweet and spicy, not entirely unakin to A1 sauce.) You can butter your butty, or add ketchup, but the moment you add an egg it becomes the “breggy” — caveat eggtor.

I don’t have much to say about the concept of putting bacon on bread. It seems natural to temper all that sodium with a slab or two of starch. I apologize to British readers who would see me wax poetic over the bacon sandwich; please feel free to write your own edda in the comments. I do, however, have a few notes on bacon itself.

I won’t overburden you — a little bacon goes a long way.  These notes come squarely from an American context, and also from my own Jewish context, and thus I have departed the UK entirely. This is a story about bigotry, and symbols, and turning away from faith. And it’s a story about bacon.

When I was growing up as an Orthodox Jewish kid, bacon was the ultimate forbidden food, a red totem of sin. We can’t eat pigs — they don’t chew their cud — and so pork is emblematic, in its way: dividing us from the Gentiles. Throughout the Jewish sojourns in Europe, we lived alongside pig-domesticating peoples for whom pork, bacon and lard are ubiquitous, and did not eat of their swineflesh. (Salo — pork lard usually spiked with garlic and slathered on rye bread — is literally the national dish of Ukraine.) It was a conscious and self-differentiating choice to avoid pork, one among many.

In America, bacon is positioned, among a certain class of citizens, as a central marker of identity. I’m thinking, here, of a particularly cringy and characteristic moment from the 2016 Republican primary: Ted Cruz, a Harvard-educated lawyer with a fussy and mannered mien, frying bacon on an AR-15 in a video and eating it with a plastic fork afterwards, taking a single, mincing little bite.

The video is ridiculous for several reasons — it’s trying too hard for machismo and swagger and falling short, for one — but it’s very much part of a paradigm, pitched perfectly to Cruz’s intended audience. Bacon and guns are interlinked in right-wing culture, where they’re presented as dual, defining characteristics of what it means to be a real American. Part of this has to do with the tradition of bacon-consumption in the U.S. — it was part of farmstead life, and central to hearty breakfasts in the kind of household where a hog-butchering had taken place a few months prior. It harkens back to a certain landed, masculine, settler-colonial dream, even if the current way to obtain it is wrapped in plastic in the supermarket meat aisle. It’s a symbol of manliness, of domination, a companion to the gun.

It’s no coincidence either that the culinary megatrend known as “bacon mania” — the proliferation of bacon chocolate, bacon ice cream, bacon vodka, bacon cupcakes, et al and ad nauseam — arose in the early 2000s, in the aftermath of 9/11. Muslims don’t eat bacon; therefore, in a culture as enrobed in Islamophobia as a bacon-latticed turkey, it became an object of American self-definition. During the Trump era, the sentiment remained porcine, but got less faddish, and far crueler. ICE agents forced Muslim detainees to choose between spoiled food and pork. One of Donald Trump’s favorite anecdotes — inevitably, an apocryphal one — concerned both pigs and guns: he grandiosely, and falsely, claimed that General John Pershing, leader of American forces during the Philippine-American War (1899-1902), had dipped bullets in pigs’ blood and used them to slaughter Muslim insurgents. It was a lie, one he told many times, in many places, at rallies full of cheering crowds of Americans who knew they ate pork, they had bullets, and they would never be on the wrong side of a colonial war. Real Americans eat bacon; real Americans worship Jesus; real Americans cheer at tales of slaughter.

It’s dangerous sometimes, and always strange, to grow up non-Christian in America. American antisemitism manifests differently, and mostly less violently, than the world-scarring geopolitical abomination of American Islamophobia. But one of the many commonalities of Muslims and Jews is our avoidance of pork: if you keep kosher or halal, it’s strictly off limits. In my life growing up, bacon was evoked as an object of temptation to be avoided, but since none of the rabbis had consumed it, and no one in the audience of little Jewish kids had either, it was a bit moot and mythical, a wavy crimson strip that showed up in cartoons and commercials but whose taste was mysterious and difficult to even imagine. It was like Christmas: something fundamentally American and fundamentally not mine, something to look at from the outside in, pressing my nose against the lit windows.

Once I left my cloistered, homogenous and separatist life, I decided to dive into that temptation wholesale. I wanted not to be so different; I wanted to be free. I ate bacon the very first year after I left my community, during my freshman year of college, in which I threw caution, my virginity, and observance of the Sabbath to the winds. I was meeting people from around America, around the world. They were Christian: they had names like Peter and Paul, Ashley and Eliza. I had never lived among Christians before, or even known any. They served bacon at brunch in the dining hall, big wok-shaped frying pans of shriveled, shatter-crisp bacon, lined with bread at the bottom like a set of overlapping Medieval trenchers. I tried some, and I tried the grease-bread, too, shamelessly. Had I become a real American, experienced a transubstantiation of the soul, an infusion of belonging? The truth was, the experience was anticlimactic.

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The symbol of great sin and abandonment of my childhood and renunciation of the principles of my heritage was, well… salty. Salty and a little bit meaty, and really not much else. I was disappointed. There was no “there” there, not enough to risk imperiling my soul. I ate more. A mound of it. It was still salty, achingly salty, enough that I had to drown the taste in milky, mediocre dining-hall coffee. It stung my tongue. But I was satiated. There is a Yiddish proverb about this: “If you’re going to eat pork, let the drippings run down your beard!” In other words: if you are going to sin, do so wholeheartedly and go all the way.

I have gone on to lead a life of unimaginable sin — char siu sin, pulled BBQ sin, sin-belly banh mis, ramen topped with perfectly fatty roundels of sin, etc. — but bacon remains a condiment, an afterthought. For me, in the end, bacon was a whim, a choice at a moment in time, a thin pink line of delineation between the past prescribed for me, and a new future I would determine. Turning away from keeping kosher didn’t make me a real American. I was one all along, even if I’d grown up in a place that preserved and honored our difference. And that’s true, too, of the Muslim communities that dot New Jersey along with Jewish communities like mine.

Bacon is not a defining characteristic, not a marker of identity. To present it as such seems to me an emblem of weakness, grasping at a fatty bit of brined flesh in lieu of a spirit. To define yourself by bacon — to define yourself by bigotry, by the denunciation of difference, by bloodshed — is to bathe yourself in the pig’s blood of a lie, and call it scarlet finery.