I've been thinking, lately, about bacon. Thinking about it a lot. Or, I should say, somewhat more than is usual, since it's not exactly rare that I have bacon on the brain. Why the pork dreams, you ask? Well, I've been re-reading John Steinbeck's masterpiece The Grapes of Wrath, a book that sits high atop the American literary canon, peering down and perhaps sneering just a little bit at all the books stacked up below--and deservedly so. I think I first read the book in seventh grade, and it certainly made an impression on me at the time. I don't think, however, that as a child I could truly understand and empathize with the crushing plight of its central family, the Joads, nor could I really appreciate the flawlessness and innovation of Steinbeck's prose. In short, I'm glad I made the decision to pick up the book again (and you should, too!)
But I'm getting off track--let's get back to the bacon. You see, in The Grapes of Wrath, the rise and fall of the Joads' fortunes can be reliably tracked by one thing: whether or not they have "side meat" sputtering away on the stove. In one of the early scenes of the book, when prodigal son Tom returns home from prison, he finds Ma in the kitchen in a classic scene of domestic tranquility, removing "high brown biscuits" from the oven and "curling slices of pork" from the pan. The book, here, carefully constructs for us a whole, complete picture of family life that is about to be torn down, shattered, trampled and spat upon by the powers that be, or Big Business. The bacon is just one of the things that assure the Joads they are safe, at home, together. But it's a persistent image. All throughout the rest of the book, Ma, Pa, Tom and Al all bring up side meat--repeatedly. As soon as they've got some coins in their pockets or even some credit at the rapacious company stores--they're spending it on side meat. When they're all out, things are bad. But when there's some bacon frying in the pan, it's a small victory; the sound and smell of the crackling pork, and the nourishment it brings, reminding them that they are still human, that they're still a family unit.
Now, bacon doesn't hold the same resonance for me, but it sure is darn delicious. And the Joads' constant yearning for it definitely got me hungry. That's when I put down my book, put on my coat, and strolled down the street to Jubilat Provisions, a Polish-owned meat shop that bursts at the seams with a seemingly endless variety of house-made kielbasa and other sausages, as well as various types of patés, smoked and cured meats, fresh Polish baked goods and jars and cans of imported delicacies of every stripe (it's one of my favorite food stores ever. Do yourself a favor and check it out the next time you're having a BBQ). And one of the best items in the house is the thick-cut, double-smoked bacon. I picked up a little less than a pound, using it first in an Austrian potato strudel that my friend Patricia and I brought to a potluck over the weekend, then, of course, crisped up in a pan for breakfast, and when I still had some left over, I thought of the Joads. Although they're not southerners, they eat (when they can manage to) what I think of as soul food: biscuits. Pie. Warming stews. Lots of things fried up in grease in a cast-iron pan. As it happened, my mom had made Southern-Style Barbecued Pulled Pork, and had given me some of the leftovers. So I had that component down. There's not much that goes better with pulled pork than good old fashioned collards do, and that's when I figured out how to use up my bacon. Finally, I wanted something sweet and starchy, but less heavy than cornbread, something that would fry up nice in my iron pan: I found a recipe for a type of corn griddle cake and worked from there. The resulting meal that I sat down to was warm and comforting, with sweet, soft meat; melting, smokey greens; and crisp, nutty, savory corn cakes. This plate's for you, Joads.
Traditional Southern Collard Greens
2 large bunches collard greens, washed, with tough stems removed
4 slices of bacon, cut into a small dice
Half an onion, sliced very thinly
2 tbsp. apple cider vinegar
1. In a deep, heavy-bottomed, medium-sized pot, heat the bacon over a medium flame until it starts to sizzle and render its fat, about 3 - 4 minutes. Add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until it is tender and translucent.
2. Take several leaves of greens, roll them into a tight bundle, and slice them into long ribbons of medium thickness, adding them to the pot and stirring as you go. Repeat, in batches, with remaining greens. Season greens with salt and pepper, add about 1/2 cup water, and cover the pot. Drop the heat to low and cook, stirring occasionally and adding more water if necessary, until greens are very soft but not mushy, about 35 - 40 minutes.
3. When greens are done, shut off the heat and add the apple cider vinegar. Taste for seasoning and serve.
Corn Griddle Cakes
Adapted from epicurious.com
Makes 12 - 15 cakes
1 cup yellow cornmeal
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. pepper
2 tsp. sugar
2 tbsp. unsalted butter, melted and cooled, plus more for brushing the griddle
1 large egg
1 cup buttermilk (or sour 1 cup milk with 1 tsp. white vinegar or lemon juice)
1 cup thawed frozen corn kernels
1. In a medium-sized bowl whisk together the dry ingredients (cornmeal, flour, salt, baking soda, baking powder, pepper, and sugar).
2. In a small bowl whisk together the buttermilk, egg, and melted butter.
3. Add the wet ingredients to the dry, stirring to combine (don't worry about a few lumps). Stir in the corn kernels.
4. Drop the batter into a buttered cast-iron skillet set over medium heat, dropping about 1/4 cup batter at a time. Cakes will be about 3 - 4 inches across. Cook until browned and crisp, about 3 minutes per side. Repeat with remaining batter.
*Note: these cakes can be eaten savory or sweet. They were delicious with my Southern dinner and equally so the next morning reheated with additional butter and drizzled with maple syrup.