- Peter Tsai
- Baconfest 2015 in its full glory.
“You know you’re in the first world when you’re at Baconfest,” said the man at the Kanela Breakfast Club table, just before handing us plates of bacon-infused loukoumades, Greek doughnuts covered in maple syrup sitting in some sort of thick bacon paste. He gave us forks, too, but said we shouldn’t use them. “You need to eat it all at once to get the full bacon experience!”
If I had seen the bacon-infused loukoumades on a restaurant menu, the sheer decadence of the thing might have given me pause. But because we were at Baconfest, I just popped the whole thing into my mouth. The doughnut was light and feathery and sweet, and balanced nicely with the smoky, salty bacon. It was a flavor profile I’d gotten quite familiar with over the past hour.
“Mmmmm!” I said.
“Mmmmm!” my friend Nadia said. “Thank you!” She turned to me. “Where do you want to go now?”
There were 70 restaurants serving up small plates at Baconfest on Friday night and a sold-out crowd 1,500 people, some dressed as gigantic strips of bacon, who had come to the UIC Forum to eat them. For the past week, the festival organizers had been importing 8,000 pounds of Nueske’s bacon from Wisconsin, 50 pounds at a time. The aroma of frying bacon hovered over the intersection of Roosevelt and Halsted. I imagined it looked like a pig-shaped cloud, but that was after I’d been inhaling it for a couple of hours and maybe it was starting to do strange things to my brain.
If you like bacon, Baconfest is the most enchanting of experiences. (If you’re a vegetarian or vegan, it’s probably appalling.) As in a fairy tale, you follow the smell of bacon into a large bacon-smelling room where kind people approach you, smiling, and offer you plates of bacon. Well, bacon-centered dishes anyway, devised by some of the best chefs in Chicago. For the most part these dishes are delicious, although, as Nadia observed, they fell into two distinct categories (aside from sweet and savory): those in which the chefs devised something new to highlight the taste of bacon, and those in which the chefs just tossed bacon into some recipe they already had. Ordinarily, we’d condemn these chefs as lazy, but they’re just acknowledging a truism of cooking: bacon makes everything better.
Case in point: the chocolate-beer-bacon cupcake from Courageous Bakery. “This sounds challenging,” Nadia said as she accepted one. About 30 seconds later, she sighed happily. “That wasn’t challenging at all!”
Unlike Mike Gebert, who was a judge this year, I did not have to consume the dishes at Baconfest in any organized way. All I had to do was experience. Which was just as well, because there was way too much bacon to eat. It may be significant somehow that the dish Nadia and I both liked best, the Winchester’s Fat Elvis waffle sandwich—peanut butter, bananas, and bacon sandwiched between two crisp, yeasty Liege waffles—was one of the first we tried. (Coincidentally, or not, the Winchester’s booth was right next to Hotel Wit, which was serving up a deconstructed peanut-battered bacon nugget, to the confusion of passersby, who wondered if there was chicken involved.)
The most ingenious thing we saw, though, was the fried cheese—the sort that always draws enormous crowds of tasters at farmers markets in the summer—with bacon in it, courtesy of Fortune Fish & Gourmet and Big Fork Brands. “Why hadn’t anyone thought of this before?” I gasped in awe. “I don’t know,” Nadia said thoughtfully. “Here, have some more,” said the guy behind the counter. “Can we?” we cried. “Yes, please!”
But we also liked Osteria Via Stato’s hand-rolled cavatelli, Chicago Hospitality’s BLT skewer, Pure Kitchen Catering’s bacon bulgogi, Salted Caramel’s bacon popcorn (which I had seen at my local farmers market the weekend before and rejected as too pricey, but this experience changed my mind), the Palmer House’s bacon brownie, and Black Dog Gelato’s chilled affogato float, which somehow tasted refreshing. (This probably says something about the state of our tastebuds at that point.) We tried beef bacon and bacon made from an Iberico pig. Both were very good, though the Iberico bacon wasn’t noticeably different from American bacon.
In retrospect, we should have planned more carefully, instead of happily gobbling down whatever bacon was presented to us. The Hot Mess at Maddy’s Dumpling House, billed as “Louisiana-style BBQ shrimp, bacon, and pork smothered in cheese sauce topped with crispy bacon,” sounded delicious in theory, but when confronted with the sight of the reality, a full-sized dumpling, glistening with sauce, my stomach began to hurt. We should have gotten to it earlier.
On the other hand, we were disappointed by Q-BBQ’s potato chip topped by pulled pork and something called bacon dust (actually rendered bacon fat), which was billed as life changing. We took a deep breath before we bit into it. Nothing happened.
“Maybe we’ll feel its effects tomorrow,” I said hopefully. (But all I felt the next morning was full.)
We stood around for a while and tried to draw some conclusions about what kind of person would attend Baconfest. But the crowd seemed comprised of the usual mix of Chicagoans (minus Orthodox Jews and visibly observant Muslims): young, old, multiple races. Many wore T-shirts proclaiming their love of bacon. Some wore bacon headdresses. One woman wore a cape declaring herself the Destroyer of Meat. At first we thought it might be some sort of radical vegan stunt, but it turned out the cape had been a gift from her husband after their first date, when she had waxed poetic about her love of meat.
Baconfest is one of the best-planned events of its kind I have ever seen. Even though there were 1,500 people in the room, I did not feel claustrophobic or homicidal. There was usually someone with a garbage can nearby so you could dispose of your plates and forks. There were also composting stations and helpful workers who instructed you on which bin you should use. There was plenty of water, because bacon is salty. Best of all, out in the hallway, there was a seating area with comfortable chairs, where you could sit and digest and regroup before facing the bacon again. You could also play Foosball or cornhole or use a selfie stick to take your picture with a cutout of Kevin Bacon. But most people just sat.
Baconfest is definitely not for the weak. We tried. We grabbed a dish from somewhere (I can’t remember where now) that had green beans and ramps. We hoped it would make us feel healthier. It did not. Finally, about halfway through a serving Carnivale’s Bacon Almond Joy, I reached my limit. It probably didn’t help that the Big Apple’s table, decorated with a real pig’s head, was right in my line of vision. (It would win a Golden Rasher award for best presentation.)
“I can’t do this anymore,” I said sadly.
We left, slowly, hoping our appetites would return. They did not. On the el, we chewed gum and held our stomachs. “Well,” Nadia said cheerfully, “if we puke, we’ll just be someone’s Friday night el story.”