Growing up bacon was something we ate on Christmas morning – the only thing I ever remember my dad’s father, or in my mind my “American” Grandpa, cooking. Maybe it was because of my mother’s constant health kick or perhaps because my dad seemed to want to leave the food of his childhood behind, but despite both of my parents being good cooks, I didn’t realize the pleasures of bacon until well into my twenties.
Perhaps this was because Dad was always on the lookout for something different, new – and bacon was a classic. He was brought up on typical middle-American fare: his mother’s preserves from the garden coupled with lunch meat, white bread, baked goods made from Crisco and soda pop. While my mother was alternately on a health kick or cooking elaborate Italian dishes from her family’s dinner table, my father waffled between sweets like Oreos or Pepsi (his late night snacks of choice that could often be found next to his side of the bed) and semi-gourmet dishes inspired by the latest species of seafood available at the local market or a meal he remembered from our yearly vacation to the Florida Keys. While my mother was learning to embrace her heritage through food once she started her family, my father was using his role as a modern husband (who shared the cooking duties) to expand our culinary palate, and, perhaps, prove his worldliness beyond that of his rural upbringing.
This only child has been equally inspired by the culinary leanings of both of my parents – once I moved out on my own for good at nineteen I finally called my mother to dictate my Nani’s recipes over the phone so I could cook sauce and bracciole and stuffed artichokes for my new boyfriend. I wanted to recreate Italian recipes as authentically as possible. However, from my dad I inherited my culinary sense of adventure – I would try the strangest thing on the menu if I was someplace new and was the first of my family to travel overseas. To facilitate both sources of my culinary inspiration, I asked for Pyrex baking dishes and a Cuisinart for Christmas when my peers were requesting walkmans and CDs and Bennetton sweaters. And, eventually, maybe I turned a little snooty. On visits home for holidays, I might pick at the Jello salad or boxed stuffing served at Grandma’s house. In my worldliness, I had come to eschew this typical American fare as inauthentic cooking – short cuts learned and repeated by too many housewives in the fifties and sixties and seventies uninspired by history from the old world. This was what I had seen my father rebelling against during my childhood after all – we rarely ate from a mix and my father would choose to make snapper and plantains over tuna noodle casserole any day – while my mother strived towards authentic Italian dishes like her Nana used to make.
Over the next decade, cooking became an increasingly important part of my life. I found myself starting a container garden and then moving on to a larger plot. I began canning and even called up my grandma – my Dad’s mother – for recipes and advice. My parents were now divorced, and my mother and I would cook together, Nani no longer with us, for my friends in the city or for the extended family when I was visiting my hometown. I still received spices and spatulas and fancy pans for Christmas. And when my dad and I would catch up on the phone once or twice a week, our conversation would invariably turn to cooking – a technique or recipe my dad was trying out or an ingredient I found at the local farmer’s market.
“Yeah, we always had them in the garden out back,” Dad might say about my discovery of watermelon radishes or golden beets.
I told my dad about the “farmhouse” cheese I made on the stovetop of my urban galley kitchen and he replied, “Your great grandma made that all the time on the dairy farm.”
Had I forgotten or simply never known that my great grandparents, whom I met a few times as a child, had owned a dairy farm in western Pennsylvania? Of course my dad would have spent plenty of time helping them in the summers when they visited. My mother often shared stories of her Italian grandparents’ growing up and I wondered if my father’s heritage was a mystery because I hadn’t asked or because he didn’t offer details. Perhaps we had both been so focused on new ideas that we forgot to talk about the past.
But back to the bacon – I was in the process of curing my own and was telling my dad about it on the phone that Sunday afternoon. I explained how easy it was – I had rubbed a two-pound pork belly (the largest I could find at our local winter farmer’s market) in a mix of curing salt and sugar and added some cayenne, ground pepper and maple syrup for flavor. It had now been curing in a plastic zip-locked bag in the fridge for a few days and plenty of liquid was already being leeched out. He should try doing this himself, I suggested.
“Oh we used to make bacon on the dairy farm,” my dad told me. “I remember that when it was time for great grandpa to slaughter a pig that great grandma would set up a big pot over an open flame to render down the fat to use for cooking. Then they would break down the animal and use every part – the belly for bacon, the chops for roasting….”
Did she bake the pork belly in low heat or smoke it, I had wanted to know. Living in a city apartment, mine would have to be baked. My dad didn’t remember, but assumed it had been smoked. “Great grandpa was always smoking and curing. To feed a big family he had to get creative with how he stored his meat.” Of course he did. Because smoking and curing were invented and perfected from necessity – hunters and then farmers who had to figure out how to preserve the food they had when they had it to continue to feed their large families throughout cold winters or hot summers or famine.
My bacon was done curing a few days later and I snuck an end piece after it spent some time in the oven. It was a bit salty, but I loved the combination of sweet and spicy from my additions to the cure. My dad was five hundred miles away, and would have to take my word on how my bacon turned out. So, in honor of both parents who helped to shape the cook that I am today, I decided to use two chopped thick-cut pieces of bacon and a cup of stovetop ricotta cheese to fill homemade raviolis to be served with a simple brown butter sauce and some grated parmesan and fried sage. The resulting meal was more Italian than not, but had the cured meat and homemade cheese from my “American” side. Inspired by my past as much as by the world around me.