The Burning Man of bacon may soon be coming to your town.
The city long known as the “Hog Butcher to the World” celebrated smoked swine and culinary ingenuity this past Saturday, when thousands descended on the University of Illinois-Chicago campus for the fourth annual Baconfest Chicago. “It just keeps growing every year,” says 34-year-old organizer Seth Zurer.
The event's beginnings were rather modest. One Saturday night in March of 2009, Zurer got a call from his less-than-sober friends, Andre "VonBaconVitch" Pluess and Michael Griggs.
"They said, 'Dude, Burning Man of Bacon, what do you think?'" recalls Zurer, who works on* the website of a suburban industrial supply company. "I said, 'Sounds great, let's do it.' We made our Facebook page, our Twitter feed and we were rolling."
That October, a handful of restaurants and about 75 attendees took part in the debut. Three years later, Chicago's Baconfest has become a major draw, selling out 3,000 tickets (at $75 per person, $150 VIP) in 90 minutes and attracting major sponsors and more than 120 vendors and restaurants, including some of the city's top chefs.
“What better way to celebrate bacon than here?” says Jared Van Camp, manning the booth of Old Town Social, where he's head chef. For the event, he served springy cubes of housemade brioche topped with bacon taleggio cheese.
Van Camp had a lot of culinary company. Indeed, the samples at this bacchanalia of bacon made a case for the food as the world's most versatile. Looking for a doughnut? Lillie's Q served up bacon beignets filled with bacon custard, drizzled with chicory coffee syrup and dusted with bacon fat powder.
Want a taste of Asia? Public House had a bacon and pineapple kim chi, while Saigon Sisters turned out a bacon pho with black garlic noodles and pickled quail egg. Thirsty? Here's a cocktail of Earl Grey tea and bacon-infused rum.
And for dessert, we have smoked bacon baklava, bacon frozen custard, plus one of the more boldly-named options. “I'm here to bring Bacon Crack to the masses,” announced Kai Kronfield, owner of San Francisco-based Nosh This. His "Bacon Crack" is a small chunk of butter toffee mixed with bacon, almonds and French sea salt and dipped in dark chocolate.
A trio of Ohio State University engineering students made the six-hour drive from Columbus to Chicago's Baconfest for the second year in a row. After a couple tours of the exhibition floor, they'd eaten nearly 30 bacon dishes. Their favorites included bacon-wrapped rabbit loin with asparagus and short-rib crostini with bacon jam. And of course, the bacon bloody mary's. "I'm very sedated," says a sluggish Mike Wilson. “I'm trying to make more room, just processing all the flavors right now.”
Anne Kramer, a local pastry chef enjoying the event with a couple friends, had a different strategy. "We go straight for the drinks and then we share a lot of the samples," she says as her friends nod. "We have our priorities."
The priority of The Bacon Lady, a Chicago-based online retailer of bacon desserts, was to attract attention. “Today is my first day of business,” says a smiling Danielle Désiré, hawking bacon pecan toffee, a bacon chocolate chip cookie, and maple bacon rice krispie treats. “I am absolutely crazy today, but I'm super stoked because this is the demographic I want. This was the perfect place to do it.”
In the post-Atkins Diet era, it's not the only one. A handful of similar events have sprung up in recent years. Knoxville's two-year-old baconfest was originally inspired by a house party, while Baconfest Milwaukee, launched this February, is in part a promotional event for the "hogs" of Harley-Davidson. Sacramento's Baconfest debuted in January, while Baconfest Michigan is coming to a Detroit suburb in June.
The mother of them all is the Blue Ribbon Bacon Festival, which recently held its fifth incarnation (dubbed “Baconpocalypse Now: I Love the Smell of Bacon in the Morning”) at the Iowa State Fairgrounds in Des Moines. The 4,000 tickets sold out in about half an hour. Attendees sat in on lectures about bacon and zombies and ate three tons of bacon at the event, which sparked protests due to bacon-related health risks.
If not the largest, Chicago's event has the most serious culinary chops, boasting nearly a dozen award-winning chefs as well as the highest ticket prices. Baconfest is a for-profit company, but runs a food drive and plans to donate about $45,000 of this year's revenue to the leading Chicago food bank.
Zurer feels pretty good about what they've accomplished. “We're three theater dudes," he says. "We don't have any background in event production, we've taught ourselves to do this as we go along."
Further Chicago expansion may be limited, so he's looking toward a different option. “Our plan for growth is to hit other cities and build the brand in other markets,” says Zurer. “We're not interested in competing, but if there's a place that doesn't have a bacon event and there's an opportunity, we'll check it out.”
All photos courtesy of Alex Kramnik.
*Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to Seth Zurer's day job as a website manager.