Baconfest Michigan: My Recap

It’s been a while since I wrote about meats and food, so it would take a rare event to break me out of a moderate lull. Luckily, that event arrived this past weekend: Baconfest Michigan. The samplings, drinks, creativity and ambience were too much for me to remain silent.

My friends and I bought VIP tickets and arrived about 10 minutes to start time. The general admission line stretched to about twice the size of the VIP line. Organizers were very good in handing out the VIP passes and wristbands while we waited in line. Once the doors opened it took a comparatively normal time to enter the building compared to other general admission festival type events I’ve attended.

But enough with logistics, this event was purely about the food. I had scouted out the website beforehand to know what items I specifically wanted to try (Side note: Because this was the first such event in Michigan, I wasn’t sure if vendors would run out of certain items or specific vendors would only remain for a specific amount of time so I knew the things I wanted first).

I first spotted Cork Wine Pub who advertised a pork belly slider with pickled red onions, bacon jam, and grainy mustard on a pretzel roll. I enjoyed it a lot, but I had a few critiques: the pretzel roll didn’t have the unique pretzel taste and the mustard took away a slight amount from the pork belly.

After the first taste, however, people (myself included) tend to get excited about all the options in front of them. Despite lines outside, most of the tables had yet to develop any semblance of lines. Instead of the marathon we planned for we sprinted through a lot of food. For the first half 45 minutes any food waiting on the table met my stomach.

Some of the early highlights: Green Lantern’s bacon. The pizza, which they’re known for didn’t excite me much, but their glazed piece of bacon on the side was the best actual piece of freestanding bacon in the venue. Lockhart’s had unique bacon lollipops (figs stuffed with bleu cheese, wrapped in bacon) that if you’re a fan of bleu cheeses did the trick.

Union Woodshop Pork Belly, Mac & Cheese, Cookie. I ate some before the picture because you can’t just look at food and not eat it.

To round out the first 45, however, I had two of the best samples I had the entire night. First, came the Union Woodshop Mac & Cheese, pork belly and cookie serving. The Pork Belly reigned supreme, practically melting in my mouth. Next, came Treat Dreams. The person serving up the ice cream suggested trying The Sunday Breakfast (vanilla swirled with maple syrup, waffles and bacon). It reminded me how awesome and unique ice cream can be.  The two stops practically slowed down time and helped me get back to a marathon mindset.

And that’s when we discovered the beer vendors for the evening. I was a little skeptical for no real reason about the drink selection. I figured it’d be pretty basic, so when I spotted the Kuhnhenn Brewing sign I shed a tear of joy (I really just texted a friend who shares similar joy in their brewing to make him jealous, but same thing). Kuhnhenn has some of the most unusual beers I’ve tasted and have become one of my favorite breweries ever since discovering them at The Great Taste of the Midwest in Madison, Wisconsin. I went with their award-winning Double Rice IPA (DRIPA), which balanced the type of food available wonderfully at the start.

From there, it seemed about time to scout out the VIP section. There were only two VIP vendors (Forest Grill and MGM) and a nice lounge area, less busy bar to order drinks at, but a few more VIP specific food vendors may have been nice.

I went right for the Forest Grill sample. It was in some ways the perfect corn dog. An incredible bacon sausage covered by a warm pretzel roll. The pretzel roll tasted like it should and the sausage tasted so unique to me I felt compelled to speak with Brian Polcyn about it. Know his charcuterie history I was slightly intimidated. He was great though, explaining the bacon sausage and how it was put together, definitely a highlight.

After a bit of a break I headed to the MGM stand. I was a little disappointed in their sample to be honest. The Faygo root beer pork belly was very good on its own, but the corn cake and other additions didn’t really do it for me. Around that time I was thrilled to be covered by a tent as storms quickly passed through, but I think it added to the experience.

Overall I’d say (especially for a first year event) it was fantastic. I gained five pounds in the four hours, but that’s what I signed up for. The VIP gift bag I think would’ve been better served with a hat or shirt instead of poster, but that’s nitpicking. I think a bacon information station about where some of the bacon comes from, where the local places get their pigs, preparing bacon and so on would’ve been interesting. Maybe bring in some famous bacon people from around the world (not Kevin). I know a lot of people got turned away, but I thought 1,200 people seemed like a perfect amount. While bar lines and some others got long, there was never a feeling of being too cramped. If they increased it to 1,500 it may be too many people in the end.

I tried approximately 30-33 different places in the end and that the perfect amount. The moment you stop enjoying the food because you’re full does a disservice to the vendors.

I have a feeling next year will sell out a lot faster and I will make sure to be in attendance once again for what I can only imagine a great event getting better.

Other highlights and unique tasting:

Cheeky Monkeys Food: The best shortbread I’ve ever tasted. At that point I was close to full and certain items weren’t enjoyable anymore. This erased my memory of being unable to fit more food in my stomach, just awesome.

Café Muse: Mac and Cheese and Butterscotch Pudding with bacon. The Mac and Cheese was good, but it was their pudding that won me over. The bacon mixed in perfectly and that’s just one good pudding.

Street Eatzz: Their presentation was something cool to see. They made a crazy bacon frittata that tasted pretty good, but the living cooking added a nice touch to the event and they interacted well with the crowd.

Cliff Bell’s bacon-banana cupcakes were moist with a great banana taste.

Bakon Vodka Bloody Mary with McClure’s pickle brine. This I tried and at first taste I didn’t like it. In fact, I thought it was pretty disgusting and I really enjoy a good Bloody Mary. But like any introduction I knew first impressions aren’t always the real impression. When I sipped it again the taste really started growing on me. The flavors flowed together nicely and the spice level topped it off nicely.

The dancing crowd: this has nothing to do with food, but the people who danced to the music and seemed to genuinely enjoy the whole scene were awesome. I’ll admit, even I jumped in and danced a little because when you’re high on bacon you can do anything.

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Beef Heart Party and Butchery

In order to end the year on a proper note, I recently held a celebratory beef heart party at my apartment. While we have already discussed the greatness that is beef heart, I thought I’d share the recipe we used and talk a little bit more about it.

First, in order to ease people into trying beef heart for the first time, we made a beef heart stew. While beef heart doesn’t have that exceptionally iron flavor that many organ meats have, the concept can still be intimidating. By mixing it in with a stew, it eases the mind a bit for those afraid.

The stew consisted of the following:

Celery, Carrots, Potatoes, onions, garlic, Cream of Mushroom as the base, and chunks of beef heart.

It was thrown into a crockpot and slowly cooked for 8 hours. Extremely simple to make and not one complaint was received about the taste.

The one issue you might find is you don’t get the full beef heart effect because the meat is a bit more on the well done side the tenderness that beef heart has.

I was going to throw in some extra organ meats for the day, but people didn’t seem so willing to try kidney, plus due to unforeseen circumstances there was no time to truly prepare.  The recipe I was going to use is this one below:

I suggest to everyone, throw your own beef heart party, it might surprise you as to how many people might come.

One more thing I wanted to mention is something I was sent the other day about new butcher shops opening up in Chicago. These are unique because it will give the customer the opportunity to see firsthand the animal being cut. It does not get more fresh than that. This is what a lot of people talk about though, getting to know and respect your food.  What better way than watching the whole process take shape in front of you?

Think about it, people take for granted where the meat comes from and how it’s cut apart. One of the lessons from the beef heart is how much work has to go in to cutting out the heart and then breaking down the heart when it comes to the eatable muscle.  So take a chance and see what kind of creations you can do for yourself.

How much of a role does food play in defining you?

I never had a reason before to announce to the world my favorite Food Network show, but last night’s episode left me with no choice. It might not stand on the same pedestal as Iron Chef or Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives, but Private Chefs of Beverly Hills is simply fantastic. It always has good stories and the chefs have personality, but more importantly the show features unique meals and that’s something I’ve appreciated more than anything.

The premise of the show is straightforward, private chefs in Beverly Hills cook for rich people. It’s simple, but a hell of an entertaining show. Usually there is at least one star getting food cooked for an event and two other parties that need these private chefs for lesser known people.

There are meals they are required to cook for specific cultures, freedom to make what they want, and the occasional meat loaf for Meat Loaf, like tonight’s episode. Pan seared lobster with mozzarella and eggplant wrapped in bacon does sound fantastic.

But, that wasn’t what piqued my interest. It was the other two events covered on the show. There was the strict traditional Jewish cuisine the chefs had to adhere to featuring chopped liver with schmaltz fried onions, matzo balls, and a beef stew. Add in the food date party (where the foods determine who you connect with) featuring Crickets.

We’ll start with the traditional Jewish meal. One of the most interesting things to come out of it was the message Chef Sasha, who had some Jewish culinary background from her upbringing. She said something along the lines of you don’t realize how much the background of what you grew up with is infused in what you do especially when it comes to food.

And that is one of the biggest differences between people willing to take chances when it comes to eating and cooking and those who don’t. If you grew up with a steady dose of chicken fingers and french fries, your engrained with little food culture. That’s why expanding your palette at a young age and educating those around you is important even in small chunks.

The second event was the food dating.You started with an appetizer and based on what you swarmed to, the matchmaker would then set you up. From there you chose what foods to bring to your date. There was a simple beef dish, chicken dish, and then crickets.

A big argument about the crickets was who would actually choose that in a first date scenario to try to match up with someone. As much as I might be willing to try it for myself, not sure if I could force it upon someone else. Especially since the other two items looked better than fried crickets. But, the concept itself was intriguing. Do you learn a lot about what people eat?  Does it make for a better match more than anything else?

I would’ve been interested to see if they had a vegetarian match with a person who went in a more meaty direction. While I venture that not many people actually take the time to read this blog, the real point of this is to ask a question.

How much of a role does food play into your personality? Is it engrained in your culture? Is it a factor as to who you connect with as friends or beyond? Think about it, and if you don’t answer here at least ask yourself that question the next time you’re eating.

A Visit to the Farmer’s Market

This is a story I did earlier in the semester, but I thought why not put it on here since it’s the semester crunch and I’m not going to have time to pitch it anymore…

I’ve never been one to believe in the idea of eating healthy. If something looks good I’ll taste it, and probably engulf the whole thing regardless of perceived future consequences. Perhaps this comes in to play more than ever when it comes to meat. A succulent steak, a perfectly crisp piece of bacon, or even a juicy breast of chicken will tempt me no matter the producer, just like many other consumers.

My curiosity about the natural and healthier food craze peaked, leading to my latest voyage through the Madison farmer’s market. I went to the Wednesday edition, opposed to Saturday’s market where a giant square suddenly feels miniscule as people bump your shoulder scouring tents for the most vibrant green in a green pepper. I had one goal in mind; seek out a meat vendor to talk about the craze revolving around “healthy” meat.

A giant “No Hormones! No Antibiotics!” sign caught my attention, but I scoped out a few more vendors just to be sure. It quickly became obvious that on Wednesdays, only one-meat producer sets up shop on Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., Pecatonica Valley Meat.

For over 30 years, the Carr family has been involved in meat production. They advertise purity in their meats and in the other items they sell. On this day, Amy and her husband Todd man the tent standing in front of a trailer full of dead animal parts. Amy stands with a warm smile waiting for the next consumer to step up.

I’ve always found it tough to trust people selling products in any form when asked to discuss why theirs is better, especially when it comes to food. Taste buds vary, metabolism constantly differs, and lifestyle choices play into health and pricing concerns.

The Pecatonica story can be seen as a mirror image of how the meat industry has fluctuated and the mentality of the buyer has shifted. In the 1980s, the Carr family found themselves on the outside of farming looking in. Prices in stores dropped significantly, larger meat producers dominated the market, and any chance of profits disappeared. “As my brother always said, the country is used to cheap food. And to farm commercially, back in those days you just couldn’t make anything,” Todd told me.

And that’s where the large-scale meat industry started drawing praise and scrutiny all at the same time. The ability to offer affordable food was, and still is, the key to many consumers’ hearts. At a farmer’s market or in the world of raising natural animals, you’re not going to find the cheap meat. In order to create inexpensive meats simple steps are taken. Feeding antibiotics to keep an animal healthy before they ever get sick, throwing in various hormones to speed growth rates, and constantly feeding them in a sheltered environment to prevent weight loss is part of the game.

For the Carr’s, that lifestyle didn’t fit their views for how an animal should be raised.

“When you raise animals naturally and you keep where they live clean, you won’t need to use a lot of antibiotics or hormones,” said Amy. “They’re outside getting fresh air and sunshine, that also helps contribute to a healthy animal.”

Approximately seven years after leaving the industry, the Carr family found a way to reenter full-fledged farming. It was what they knew and loved. Plus, many consumers started backtracking on the whole cheap meat concept. Pecatonica reestablished itself and could promote this “No Antibiotics, No Hormones” lifestyle without a problem. Enough people became willing to spend a bit more for cleaner and leaner meat.

While I chatted with the Carrs, I watched customers buy $1.00 beef sticks for a quick snack and the occasional piece of meat well above grocery store costs. Nobody questioned the prices or where the animal came from. They didn’t ask about the environmental effects of large-scale meat production or long-term health effects of eating red meat.

That’s when it became more obvious of the choice these people make. Instead of buying eight ground beef patties totaling $4.25, they buy one pound for the same price from the stand. The reasons might not make sense at first glance and may even seem elitist, especially to those struggling to make ends meet.

The choices can be broken down into three facets. People could simply be eating less red meat. If the product is higher quality and you’re willing to eat less of it, why not spend more. By buying massive quantities of commercialized meats, in the end you’re setting yourself up to eat massive quantities. Cheaper food can be enjoyed more often than stuff that can’t fit into a budget.

And as time has shown, if you eat a lot of red meat no matter what kind, health effects will eventually creep in.

Additionally, the carbon footprint of buying local is astronomically smaller than from most stores. Time magazine once said the meat industry generates over 18% of the world’s greenhouse gases. While this may be the furthest thing from anyone’s mind looking to feed their family, think about the future costs. Manure has to constantly be destroyed (and it’s piling up). Add in some unused offal meats that might be needed one day to help the world sustain enough food for all and there are some troubles.

And finally, think of the animal lifestyle. I’ve talked to people who want to know the animal they’re eating was happy. It might sound slightly sadistic because the animal ultimately died to be on your plate. Can that ever be a happy lifestyle? But, to them they’d rather eat an animal who got to see the sun, than locked in a sheltered room.

But, it circles back to how you eat the meat. And that’s what so many people miss in the healthy meat craze. A place like Pecatonica Valley has been around long enough to build customer relationships full of trust. They have no desire to become the largest farm and they’re happy working with local restaurants and on the farmer’s market circuit. And that’s okay because it leaves more options for those looking beyond price and quantity.

There are choices like happy cows and environment they can help you with, but the ultimate decider is you. If you’re looking for the cheapest and most meat, a farmer’s market isn’t the place to look. If you want to enjoy meals every day involving pig, cow, or chicken, it really doesn’t matter where the meat comes from because it will still clog your arteries.

But, if you’re looking for an alternative, the Carr’s method might not be so bad.

Eating Bird

Picture courtesy of Maslowski/National Wild Turkey Federation

With Thanksgiving right around the corner, I thought it about time we venture into the world of eating bird.  Sure, we’ll talk about your traditional Thanksgiving turkey, but I’m interested in the more unique birds and items people eat. Eating quail and duck isn’t totally unique, but Quail Eggs are fun and there are some good duck recipes with the meat or don’t do the work and find some duck fat fries. How about some Partridge, pigeon (the rat of the sky), pheasant, and grouse. Plus, the big birds, cousins Emu and Ostrich and a little bit of Rhea. For all your chicken needs for raise them for meat yourself, could be fun. And even though I am totally against eating them because they are a top 4 animal in my book, Penguin.

First, the turkey because people like holidays. A brief history of how the turkey came to where it is today shows that the turkey population almost ceased to exist. Like often seen with species in the 19th century, hunters took advantage of the plentiful amount that existed on the land. As they spread further west to take over more land, more turkeys were discovered and killed. Finally, with some federal protection turkeys began to survive. Now, you might even see a wild turkey in your suburban neighborhood. I had the honor of seeing one cross the street a few years ago. So, you enjoy the taste and think how about I raise some wild turkey! Okay, very few actually think that, but if you do… here is a intro article into it and an in depth beginners books that exists. And of course, some nice turkey recipes for when that thing is ready to move on from your backyard to your dinner plate. And as an added bonus, a turkey confit recipe courtesy of Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives.

Moving on, let’s check out the essence that is the “game bird”. The University of Minnesota has a nice breakdown of the world of these birds. And even a brief synopsis of how to raise them yourself if you don’t feel like hunting is included there. Be careful if you’re buying game bird to eat, however, as the FDA doesn’t have many guidelines or testing for that meat.

One of the most common game birds is pheasant. You can do a lot of cooking with the young or old. The pheasant has 35 different species and are seemingly most commonly hunted in Britain. But do not fear, in America there are many dedicated sites to bird hunting, including the pheasant to show you where to go. Part of the pheasant family is the well known Partridge. Here’s a little hunting guide for Partridge and Grouse. And a very nice sounding Pan-Fried Partridge recipe.

Moving from the pheasant we’ll get right into the pigeon. I’ll be honest, I’m not a fan of them as animals. They irritatingly fly around waiting for food, swarm to whomever has food, and poop on people (true story). So I encourage you to eat the rats of the sky all you want. And if you’re really daring, have fun and raise them. There is actually a deep history of eating pigeons, especially at a young age. Eating squab has been around in Europe for generations. But, here is a distinct hunting guide for you to find those pigeons (where you aren’t shooting wildly on the streets).

Now, on to the big birds known as Ratites. It includes the ostrich, emu, and rhea. The USDA has a guide to these fine tasting animals. These animals have become common alternatives when it comes to eating meat. A nice ostrich steak or Emu pate can be quite delicious. And the meat is becoming easily obtainable. If you have a farmer’s market nearby you might be in luck with an Emu farmer or two. Emu has many values in addition to meat like the oils, feathers, and skin they produce. So maybe you could even raise them yourself. As for Rhea, one Microbiologist is convinced of it’s magical powers that it has surpassed chicken soup in their mind.

Finally, the penguin. If you’re living in Antarctica I can accept you eating the penguin. There is a site out there taking a mocking approach with the concept of eating and hunting penguins. Penguin meat is a delicacy in some lands, but it’s also not as common as it used to be. Even Antarctic menus have removed penguin meat (and seal brain). Luckily for my sanity and yours, I could not find any true Penguin meat recipes.

So for now, they can go on happily living, but beware there might be one under your car.

Get right to the heart of matters, It’s the heart that matters more

Thanks to travelpod for the picture of a Peruvian Heart Skewer server on the streets

Looking to get a bit crazier in the next piece of meat you eat?  Let’s step it up a little bit and get to the blood pumper, the engine that drives the body, the soul of it all: the heart.

A little background first on heart for those ready to head out and eat something better or something you’re more comfortable with. Let’s start with this: you’ve probably eaten heart before without even knowing it. It’s quite possible in your fast food heyday that the taco from Taco Bell had a slight percentage (10-15%) of heart in it. According to Jeff Sindelar, University of Wisconsin meat extension specialist, the company is allowed to use up to 15 percent. And, since it is a cheap meat (because the demand is low), they take advantage.

Next, if you’re from Detroit or have ever had the honor of indulging yourself in any sort of coney dog or items with chili involved from Lafayette Coney Island or American Coney Island, you have had beef heart. Of course, that recipe emerged from the 1910s and 1920s, a time when organ meats were as common as regular ground beef is today.

And of course, if you’re from a place like Peru, beef heart is still commonplace. Peruvian dishes like to use beef heart and not in a way that hides the meat. Beef heart skewers can be found from street vendors and in many restaurants. Even in Madison, Wisconsin a Peruvian restaurant, Inka Heritage has the skewered beef, known as Anticuchos featured on the menu.

So what are the benefits of eating heart (besides being able to say you’ve got a lot of heart- awkward)?

Thanks to Kelly the Kitchen Kop, she helps lay out some of the benefits. These include the obvious heavy concentration of protein, but continue into more in depth benefits like B vitamins often found in offal meats, the much needed phosphorus and zinc, plus a lot of CoQ10- good for a lot of things according to Wikipedia.

Don’t forget the heart is a muscle, and one of the strongest for a body. That means it’s a leaner, less fatty meat.

And for those who don’t trust me, trust local Madison Chef Dan Fox, executive chef at the Madison Club. He says if he was limited to choices of offal meat to use in a meal, heart would be right up there.

“Heart I like to serve. I think that’s a very tasty part of the animal.” He says braising or roasting hearts

He also relayed a story that proves the theory, if you don’t have the mental image of what it is, it might not be so bad…

“We’ve served beef heart and called it beef skewers, I did it on purpose,” Dan told me. “We did the Best of Madison party and I put out very interesting things. One was a marinated beef heart skewer and all the salon stylists were up there like ohh that’s fantastic… Beef heart is very very good, but people just don’t want to try it.”

The best part of the story, Chef Fox never told the guests that they had just tasted beef heart, and probably for the first time. “They can just go on believing what they thought it was.”

And that’s the key for people trying foods they wouldn’t try because of the mental image. If you can trust where you get the meat from and the cook, it usually doesn’t matter what they’re using. And, Chef Dan wouldn’t risk the trust of the people who it his food. By taking a risk of serving beef heart to unsuspecting consumers, he didn’t put them in any danger and was willing to show them a world they never knew.

So you want to try beef heart?  Well, if you can find a Peruvian restaurant nearby they probably present a good opportunity. Or how about cooking it for yourself…

Grilled Beef Heart with Roasted Chili Peppers
Beef Heart, Bacon, Butter and Onion

Beef Heart en Mole

And a whole lot more of them…