The experiment began just as absurdly as it ended. I ran a 5K in Milwaukee called the Race for the Bacon. The prize for finishing was, you guessed it, a pack of bacon. Only in Wisconsin do we celebrate fitness with fatty meat—and a beer truck and buffet of bacon-infused entrees. Of course, we didn’t need another pack; we already had one in our fridge like any honorable American. But give away free bacon? That’s crazy. So we decided on the only conceivable alternative: we would pickle it.
It seemed like the perfect idea—merging America’s delicious golden child with the go-to of canners everywhere. At the time, I felt like we were on the edge of the next great culinary invention, ready to step out into the limelight to long overdue cheers of appreciation. But looking back, I realize we were actually creating some weird, almost medical experiment. You know, the type with the unidentified mangled mass suspended in cloudy liquid in a jar. The kind whose sheer horror is left on a stainless steel shelf for observation purposes.
We got down to business. My husband measured out the ingredients. Into the jar went vinegar, water, salt, some peppercorns, and a handful of other spices we thought would intensify the meaty goodness. We carefully peeled every strip off its plastic backing and, in a reverent hush, lowered each into the liquid. A loose screw on the lid, a boiling water bath for ten minutes, and with the metallic pop of the top sealing, our creation was finished. We would wait a week and then feast. So we set it on the shelf with our other canned delicacies: cantaloupe syrup, pickled mushrooms, strawberry preserves—the stuff that was actually good.
I’ll never forget what I fondly refer to as “The Baconing.” I headed home from my job editing at a national food magazine (something I erroneously felt qualified me to make this heinous recipe), ready to meet my husband in the kitchen and pop open our perfect, delicious jar of pickled bacon.
Our first indication of a problem was the complete lack of vinegar in the jar. In fact, there didn’t seem to be any liquid in the jar at all. We were faced with a jar of pinkish-brownish stuff that didn’t move a millimeter when we flipped the jar upside-down. Like a kid guessing what’s in her wrapped Christmas present, I shook the jar. You know that sound when you accidentally step in a thick mud puddle, and the goop tries to suck your shoe off into its brown belly? Yeah. That’s what we heard.
Of course, I was still completely jazzed. We were breaking new ground here! We were taming a new beast! We were officially introducing Pickled Bacon Day!
My excitement persisted as far as the smell that hit us once we pried open the jar. Salt. Vinegar. An odd hint of rubbing alcohol and something that distinctly resembled a tub of Elmer’s Glue. I poked the jar and the contents jiggled back at me. Spots of white, thick grease speckled the whole mess like bacon-induced smallpox. We had created a masterpiece of gelatinous, stinky, greasy sludge that more or less retained its shape when we dumped it into a bowl. One major question loomed: Where was the bacon? I remembered putting it in there, but I didn’t see it. Had it completely dissolved into fatty jelly?
We were determined to Indiana Jones deduce where the meat disappeared to. I briefly considered throwing a sandbag into the jar so we didn’t alert its demons that the contents were gone. Instead, I grabbed a fork and mashed the mess down into the bowl. And there it was—little, shriveled, grey-brown strips of meat. In no way did it resemble bacon. Honestly, I still would have tried it, but the smell mixed with the aesthetic delight before us really just sapped my appetite.
Here’s what I think went wrong. When we boiled the jar with everything in it, the heat probably softened the fat on the bacon, releasing little monsters of grease into the vinegar which thickened as it cooled. The vinegar, at the same time, possibly sucked all the meaty, fatty life out of our precious bacon and reduced its size, while unleashing all that muck into the rest of the jar. And then it sat to fester. But I’m just guessing. I don’t think we’ll ever truly know what caused this disaster.
I’ve heard rumors the process can be done successfully. But I’m skeptical. Maybe if we fried the bacon and ditched the grease before putting it in the jar, it might have worked. Or maybe then we would have made bacon marmalade. Hey, that actually sounds pretty good…
Jennifer Billock is an award-winning writer, bestselling author, and editor, focusing on culinary travel. She has written for The New York Times, Yahoo Travel, National Geographic Traveler, Porthole Cruiser, Midwest Living, and Taste of Home Magazine. She is currently dreaming of an around-the-world trip with her Boston terrier. Check out her website at www.jenniferbillock.com and follow her on Twitter @jenniferbillock.