Saturday, December 3, 2011

The Day the Bacon Died

We should all endeavor to shun the Interstate highways a little more often.

I know, you have to get where you're going, always late, always go go go, but doing so numbs us to all that we're missing out in the country.  We sometimes complain about living in "Fly-over Land" here in the mid-west, how the coasts ignore us, how far Washington is removed from the problems on the ground.  Then we put on the blinders, set the cruise, and bee-line it to our destination, and we're doing the same thing to our own state.

Dad preferred back-roading, and therefore, so do I.  It's all about what you grew up with.  Of course there are times when hitting the blue highways is not the answer.  When I'm heading up to camp it's four lanes and 75 on the speedometer as far as they will take me.  Or sometimes you're at the end of one of those interminable road trips, all ragged and jumpy on sleep deprivation and caffeine.  That's a time set the cruise, and follow the herd back to the shack.  But other times you just have to leave the herd aside.

Highway 35, as it traces it's way alongside the Mississippi River from Prescott to Prairie du Chien is one of my favorite drives in Wisconsin.  All the waterfowl and river panoramas not withstanding, I never would've found those fresh cheese curds, still warm and super squeaky, if it weren't for that drive.  It takes more than an hour longer than I-94 coming back to Madison from the Twin Cities, but it's completely worth it.  And I can stop in Pepin, and shoot the breeze with Adam, which is always nice.

I seldom drive back from camp or Brian's house, my two main hunting and fishing destinations, by the same route.  The Gazateer is my loyal companion.  You are somewhat limited by the number of roads, but there's always that wonderfully enticing moment at a stop sign in the sticks...

Ah, what the hell, let's see what's over this way...

It used to drive Erin insane, never being able to figure out exactly where we were or how far we were from home.  The truth is, sometimes I didn't know either, and that's part of the fun.  Heading, say, southeast-ish until you stumble upon a road or village you recognize is good fun.  At least for me.

There are rustic roads, beautiful vistas, and cool historical markers that I always try to stop and read; but the real appeal for me is the unknown.  What could be around the next bend -- just like floating a river.

It does feel like you're going to see more wildlife most of the time because you are going slower, but I'm not sure about that one.  You do have to pay more attention to curves and slow-moving tractors suddenly blipping up out of nowhere, so you might actually be looking in the fields less.  It is easier to zone out on a massive ribbon of concrete and re-bar, coasting along with the flow and peeping for turkeys and deer.  More research is obviously required.

The crown jewels of these jaunts off the main drag are the little food producers you stumble upon.  If you're tailgating me when I lay new eyes on an apple orchard or indie cheesemaker (and you will be because I drive as fast as a Revolutionary War vet with bad cataracts), you best be paying attention.  I'm gonna clamp on the binders late, and fishtail into that gravel driveway.

Which is precisely how we found the greatest bacon I've ever had.  Brian discovered a tiny general store out past the middle of creation on one of his trips off the four-lane.  Nothing more than a small converted gas station, it was a gold mine.  It was a bit "Country Austere" for the city crowd, if that's a thing, and that was fine with us.  The meat counter was fully stocked, there was a crock full of stunningly huge and delicious pickles, and the owners were behind the counter, always ready to answer questions, slice up a hunk of cow or pig, or simply chat.  It was so small and poorly advertised that I went there for years before I learned the name -- Johnstown Food Center.

And the bacon.  Smokey, perfectly salted,... I'm gonna say it... sultry slabs of gorgeous bacon.  The single most delicious slices of swine to ever pass the lips of this humble scribe.  They cured and smoked it on-site, sliced it to your specifications, and wrapped it for you on the spot.  I don't know the owners, so I can't say for certain, but I'm pretty sure the stooped gentleman with the shock of white hair toiling over the stainless machines in back was running the show, and that at some point in his long life, he'd stumbled upon Aladdin's Lamp, and asked for the world's perfect bacon recipe.  It was, to employ an overused term of the day to it's full meaning, epic.  Flat-out porcine perfection.

We're all familiar with the current and surprisingly long-lived bacon fad.  And I'm all for some loving on salty sweet smoked pork belly.  Bacon can be downright sexy, no doubt about it.  But, as often happens in a craze, there is an awful lot of racing to the bottom out there -- lots of truly loathsome, heinous bacon.  Chemically injected, liquid smoked crap.  The cheap shit in every grocery store and quickie-mart.  That's not what we're talking about here.  It's not even in the same league.  We're talking about bacon that made you pause, bacon that left you wondering where it had been your entire life.

Johnstown Food Center is closed now, lost to the economy and aging proprietorship I'm assuming, so we were forced to go to another bacon purveyor for deer camp (if you're still buying grocery store bacon or not making your own, why are you even still reading this?).

Maplewood Meats is another fine meat shop a little off the beaten path.  We've had our venison processed there for years, and everything we've ever ordered has been excellent.  The German summer sausage and brats are particularly outstanding, and the bacon is very, very good.  2011 National Grand Champion Bacon, as a matter of fact, but all the boys in camp agree, it can't quite beat the "Gas Station Bacon," as it's known in camp, that we lost from Johnstown Food Center.  I still don't know what Don McLean was talking about when the marching band refused to yield, but I know the day the bacon died.

You wanna get nuts?  Let's get nuts.  Bacon and Egg Toast Cups.

Farm fresh eggs obviously go hand in hand with quality bacon.  If you're gonna drive out of the way, and pull a few extra bucks when you go to the hip for dazzling bacon, why would you sully the entire operation with pasty, bland eggs from the grocery store?  Don't be a chump.

Spotting a "Fresh Eggs" sign on the side of the road raises almost as much excitement in me as spotting an Ivory-Billed Woodpecker would in a southern birder.  For some reason the radio or Ipod goes off immediately because I'm apparently unable to make a simple turn into a driveway with music playing.  That is followed by the slightly uncomfortable walk up the the farmer's door.  They put the sign out, they want to sell the eggs, but it still feels a little like trespassing somehow.

The eggs themselves can vary quite a bit.  Obviously there's the shell colors, looking like they were died subdued browns, blues, and greens for some kind of camouflage Easter.  Shell thickness can also be an adventure too.  Sometimes they break when you startle them with a sudden glance, more often you need a tack hammer to make a dent in them, at least compared the the dainty white shells found at the store.

Taste varies as well, depending on how and what the chickens have been eating.  This is not a concern with store bought eggs because, obviously, there is no taste.  Luckily, I have a buddy who raises chickens, they produce for him consistently, and the eggs are delicious.  Deeply lustrous yolks that float on fluffy whites in the frying pan.  I love them soft cooked with that enchantingly gooey burnt orange yolk just barely oozing.  God Bless America, and pass the AED.

I believe at last count there were roughly 32 gajillion small creameries and cheese makers in rural Wisconsin.  In some parts of the state, you can barely crest a knoll without seeing a sign for fresh curds.  We can cover the love of independent cheese wizardry in another post.  A guy could drive for days living on the craft of these artisans alone.  And fresh strawberries taken back to a parent's home to be converted into glorious jams and pies I happily trade chores for.  The caramel goodness of apple cider, freshly squeezed in an antique press from apples you just picked.

The opportunities for roadside ambrosia are nearly limitless, but almost none of them can be found following nose-to-tail like a drone down the Interstate highway.

Update 11/7/2013:  The lords of bacony goodness have chosen to shine upon us once again!  Johnstown Food Center is back in business, and my buddy Frisbee says the bacon is just as spectacular as it had been when they shut their doors.

I find myself preposterously giddy at the chance to taste again bacon that I've been unable to replicate or find an equal to for years.  Even if nobody even sees a deer in camp, this will be a season to remember for the momentous return of Gas Station Bacon!

Yes, that was two exclamation points in two paragraphs, Mark Twain be damned!  It's that good!


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