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Bacon is makin' a comeback

If ever there were a food you wouldn't expect to be fashionable, it's bacon. The thin strip of fat practically defines down-home, if not downscale, food.

But lately cooks and chefs are making a silk purse out of a sow's paunch. Hugo's, a restaurant in Portland, Maine, serves a honey-wine-glazed pork belly with apple, date and rosemary strudel as a first course. Blackbird, in Chicago, has a hit in its 12-hour braised fresh-bacon slab, at $23 a serving.

The first bite sold Lisa Futterman, a chef and cooking instructor. She celebrated her 39th birthday in June at Blackbird, with an order of roast veal loin. But after sampling her companion's pork-belly entree, she begged him to switch plates. "It's so addictive, crispy, salty, fatty — I just had to steal it," she says. "He is a good friend, and it was my birthday."

Bacon just got its own cookbook. Published in July, "Everything Tastes Better With Bacon," by Sara Perry, has 70 recipes, ranging from brie and bacon frittata to coq au vin. Desserts include a pear-apple crisp with brown sugar-bacon topping.

Applegate Farms, an organic meat producer in Branchburg, N.J., offers a Sunday Bacon, for $5.99 a half-pound pack, made from hogs that receive no antibiotics or growth hormones. That's pricey pork. The typical retail price of bacon is around $3.20 a pound. "Pass the bacon, hold the antibiotics," says the farm's Web site. There's even a Bacon of the Month Club, a thriving mail-order outfit for specialty bacon.

Even conventional bacon makers are expanding their menu of offerings. The bacon lines at Hormel Foods Corp., the maker of Spam, now include Peppered Maple, Applewood Smoked, Old Smokehouse Sugar Cured, Lower Sodium, Maple, Thick Slice and Mesquite Smoked.

The National Pork Board, which got people thinking differently about pork with its slogan "Pork. The Other White Meat," has been busily pushing the theme "Bacon Makes It Better." Jeff Pigott, a marketing director for the industry trade group, says: "I think bacon has gotten a bad rap as a bad food."

Nutritional concerns still won't go away. Three cooked slices have about nine grams of fat, six grams of protein and 109 calories. A McDonald's hamburger has 10 grams of fat; so does a small bag of french fries. Cooking bacon to a crisp removes more fat, but consumers don't always do that.

Big fans include Atkins dieters, who are taught to shun carbohydrates and embrace fat. Lee Barrie, a 51-year-old publicist in Chicago, says he lost 30 pounds in four months on the diet. He eats bacon three to four times a week. "It's delicious," he says. "It's a flavor-enhancer," adds his wife, Cindy. "In restaurants, we've noticed a lot of bacon-infused or bacon-flavor sauces."

The pork board has been carefully charting the increased use of bacon throughout the restaurant business. Food-service places used 1.44 billion pounds of bacon last year. The total has grown about 5 percent annually over the past five years. A big reason is that fast-food outfits are offering more bacon cheeseburgers and tucking bacon slices under buns on chicken sandwiches.

"Bacon has gone from a center-of-the-plate breakfast item to a condiment used to flavor many, many foods," says Roger Mandigo, a professor of animal science at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln who has been conducting a big bacon-cooking-research project sponsored by the pork industry.

Researchers at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln are looking at shrinkage, wrinkling and distortion of bacon as it cooks.

Breakfast consumption of bacon has been rising nationally, too, with Americans eating it 13 times a year on average, according to NPD Group Inc., a market-research firm, up from 12 times in 1998. Pork processors are gambling that instant bacon, the precooked microwavable variety, will increase retail sales, which stand annually at about $1.86 billion, according to ACNielsen. Oscar Mayer offers a Ready to Serve Bacon, with 15 slices to a box, for about $3.50. "No hassle and no mess," the box promises. Precooked bacon is a hot sell in no small part because it eliminates the greasy mess left over after frying bacon.

Smithfield Foods Inc., the nation's largest pork company, just completed a $25 million expansion at one of its Patrick Cudahy plants in Cudahy, Wis., that boosted its capacity for precooked bacon by 40 percent. Roger Kapella, Patrick Cudahy president, notes that many restaurants are cooking burgers longer now for meat-safety reasons. "As you start cooking more, you cook the fat out and the flavor out," he says. "Bacon is the ultimate tool to bring the flavor back."

The sales of precooked bacon and the resurgent interest in bacon and pork bellies is evident in market prices. Pork bellies, from which bacon is sliced, last year closed at their highest price in 25 years, nearly 79 cents a pound. Belly prices have eased a bit this year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, but remain well above levels 10 years ago, when they ran only 30 cents a pound.

Basic bacon has changed little over the generations. Most people still buy it in packages of overlapping strips, a packing style the industry calls "shingled." Bacon was a staple for the Colonists, who initially used English recipes to cure the meat, according to a brief history offered in "Everything Tastes Better With Bacon," published by Chronicle Books, San Francisco.

Dan Philips, a 43-year-old wine importer based in Oxnard, Calif., five years ago decided to wed his passion for bacon to the overnight delivery business. Through his company, the Grateful Palate, he garnered about 20 to 30 orders in the first year of his Bacon of the Month Club. Today, with subscriptions costing $235 a year, it has 1,000 members, Mr. Philips says. Each is sent a pound of cold-packed premium bacon: Meacham's Country Style Bacon from Kentucky one month, Burger's Sugar Cured Bacon from Missouri another, and on and on.

"My mom's from Southern Tennessee and her family raised pigs," says Mr. Philips, explaining his lingering love for swine strips. In his house, he says, bacon was as much a morning ritual as toothpaste. "You'd wake up and make bacon."