Your old pal Canadian bacon probably isn’t
By Sylvia Rector
The other day I found out I’d been frying up a fraud.
What I’ve always called Canadian bacon isn’t Canadian. I wonder whether it’s even bacon.
After all, what is bacon, anyway?
Before we grapple with that larger existential issue, however, let’s straighten out the misunderstanding about Canadian bacon . . . er, bacons.
The whole subject came up when I got a call from Ken Haviland, owner of the REAL Canadian Bacon Co. — which inexplicably isn’t in Canada but in Troy. His company name uses “real” in capital letters for reasons that will soon become obvious.
Haviland, who was born in Ontario, told me that the round slices of meat I buy in the grocery store for eggs Benedict aren’t real Canadian bacon.
Ask a Canadian what Canadian bacon is, Haviland said, and he or she will tell you that it’s peameal bacon — which incidentally is made with cornmeal, not peameal.
Real Canadian bacon, he says, isn’t striped like American breakfast bacon, which Canadians also enjoy but simply call bacon. Instead, peameal bacon is cut from a very lean, closely trimmed, pickle-brined piece of muscle that grows along the hog’s backbone — which explains yet a third name for it: back bacon.
Except for the cornmeal-dusted, 1/8-inch-thick layer of fat on one side, peameal bacon is pale pink and very lean; think eye of pork chop and you’ll have the idea. The raw slices are about a quarter-inch thick, so it only needs to fry a couple of minutes on each side to be cooked through.
But perhaps the biggest difference between real-Canadian-peameal-back-bacon and not-really-Canadian American-style-Canadian bacon — are you still with me? — is the smoking. Or lack of it.
Both kinds are cured, but only the American-made product is smoked, which gives it a flavor and consistency much like ham. The unsmoked Canadian product has a lightly salty flavor but none of the smoky characteristics that Americans associate with bacon, so it ends up looking and tasting more like fresh pork. Even so, it’s really quite tasty.
The “peameal” name, by the way, comes from the dried yellow peas that originally were ground into meal and packed around the meat to help preserve it. When corn became more plentiful, processors switched grains but not names, Haviland says.
What isn’t clear to me is how everyone got confused about what Canadian bacon really is. Or was. I mean, it appears the Canadians wouldn’t even have anything called “Canadian bacon” if we hadn’t named it. Or misnamed it.
Haviland says that around the turn of the 19th Century, England had a pork shortage and began importing pork “side bacon” from Canada; the English smoked the meat and called it “Wiltshire sides.” And somehow Americans got the idea that bacon from Canada was smoked.
Maybe then we put two and two together — the lean pieces of peameal pork, and the misunderstanding about smoking — and got a wrong number: the not-really-Canadian Canadian bacon.
The real deal
So now you know why Haviland named his company the REAL Canadian Bacon Co. And you can guess why he called me.
He’s selling “Canadian peameal back bacon” over the Internet, so people all over the United States and the world can buy the real thing and have it shipped, frozen, to their front doors.
Although his company is based in Michigan, the product is made in Canada, imported to the United States and inspected by the USDA, which classifies it as uncooked Canadian bacon.
Haviland sells packages of slices as well as unsliced roasts, which stay tender and juicy after baking because of their brine curing. Be warned: It’s not cheap.
His Web site — http://www.realcanadianbacon.com/ — has recipes for the slices and roasts, as well as more Canadian bacon history, a nutritional analysis and ordering information.
And about my earlier question — What is bacon, anyway? — I think it must be like beauty . . . largely in the eye of the beholder.