Early this week came the unsettling news that America is experiencing a bacon shortage.
“There are literally not enough little piggies going to market,” said an alarming and widely circulated report.
As evidence, the article said, “In December 2016, frozen pork belly inventory totaled 17.8 million pounds, the lowest level since 1957, according to the U.S.Department of Agriculture.” (Bacon is made of pork bellies that have been sliced and smoked or cured.)
This raised a stir nationwide because bacon is one of the most popular American foods. It can be eaten alone or used in recipes to punch up the flavor of more mundane casseroles and salads. Bacon or bacon flavoring also has been featured in products ranging from ice cream to lollipops to toothpaste to artisanal chocolate.
Personally, I questioned the bacon-shortage thesis.
I had read an article in October 2016 that asserted there was an overall pork surplus. From that piece:
Hog futures were the worst investment in commodities last quarter and in the past year. That’s because there are simply too many pigs.
“We could have not just a record but an obscene record supply” (of pork), said a financial analyst in Illinois. (Illinois is the country’s second-larges pork-producing state after Iowa.)
One reason given for the problem was softening demand in China, a country whose cuisine relies heavily on pork. The Chinese economy has had a case of either the sniffles or a full-blown flu for a while now, depending on whose numbers you use.
In addition, the fourth quarter is traditionally the time of year when most baby porks are slaughtered. It could have been expected in October that pork inventories, including pork belly inventories, would be rising rapidly.
Taken together, these facts made me suspect that the country does not face a pork shortage generally or a bacon shortage in particular.
And I wasn’t the only skeptic. A late-week report in the august New York Times called the pork shortage story “fake news.” From the article:
“To imply that there’s going to be some shortage of bacon is wrong,” said Steve Meyer, the vice president of pork analysis for EMI Analytics, in an interview as the bacon reports spread. “There’s plenty of hogs coming. There’s going to be plenty of bacon.”
(Vice president of pork analysis — what a job title! But I digress.)
Between the years of 1961 and 2011, pork belly futures were traded on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. The price fluctuations in futures provided signals to farmers about the profitability of investing in hogs at given times. This would tend to smooth supply.
I do not know why the CME dropped pork bellies from its trading roster. (Confession here: I am not a commodities expert. For many years I thought the term “pork bellies” meant hog futures; the two are different.)
But I do have a thought about why there may be more demand for pork bellies. It has nothing to do with bacon. It has to do with Nashville.
I spent much of last year in Nashville, a booming city of great charm and with an unusual restaurant culture. Just as the city has attracted ambitious musicians, it has become a proving ground for innovative young chefs.
Nashville restaurants deserve a broader discussion, a subject for a later post, but one remarkable thing in the Nashville restaurant world of 2016 was the full embrace of “pork belly” as a menu item.
I’m not talking bacon here, just plain old pork belly, which looks like this before it is cooked.
Every Nashville restaurant seemed to have at least one menu item that involved pork belly last year. Here’s an example from a Southern-Japanese fusion spot:
Southern Ramen — triple stock, collard greens, tabasco bean sprouts, soft egg, pork belly
When I got back to the Northeast after the holiday season, I shared pork belly anecdotes with stylish friends who dine at trendy Manhattan eateries. They said that they, too, had begun to notice pork belly on restaurant menus.
More ominously, the 4,300-unit Arby’s restaurant chain introduced a new product last fall, the Smokehouse Pork Belly Sandwich.
Pictured below, the sandwich is described this way: “thick slices of pork belly, crispy onion strings, mayo, smoked cheddar cheese and Smoky Q sauce on a toasted star-cut bun.”
Around my house, this is what is known as a gut bomb. Fast-food restaurants depend on high-fat, hand-held entrees like these to maintain their profit margins.
If this sandwich catches on (and I don’t see why it would not,) it will be copied.
If it is copied, demand for pork belly will rise and will compete with the already-high demand for bacon.
If that happens, then the country may have a genuine bacon shortage.
The most durable food trend of recent years has been the rising popularity of bacon. A Beard Award-winning writer, David Sacks, discussed the phenomenon in an informative and entertaining Bloomberg article.
Bacon innovators come in packages large and small. I became aware of this last month when I was shown family photos of the birthday dinner that a young relative had designed for himself. It was a raspberry-bacon sandwich.
The meal was a resounding success, and I believe he would recommend the recipe without hesitation to others with similar tastes.