Forget about the Mayan calendar. The real crisis looming this year is a potential shortage of bacon.
Earlier this week, the National Pig Association in Great Britain announced that "a world shortage of pork and bacon is now unavoidable." The news that a drought-driven feed shortfall is leading to smaller herds and higher prices had the Internet and phone lines sizzling all week.
"I was talking online last night with a lot of farmers from the U.S. to the U.K. to New Zealand," said Ben Boenisch, meat manager at St. Paul's venerable Widmer's Super Market. The verdict: "Prices are gonna go really high ... just before the holidays or maybe next spring."
Over the past five years bacon has become an object of outsized ardor among millions of foodies nationally. It has gone way beyond being a breakfast favorite: Pork belly is a staple on countless local restaurant menus, and retail outlets offer up bacon-infused items ranging from vodka and popcorn to ice cream, perfume and dental floss.
"Bacon seems to be one of those trends that just keeps on being trendy," said chef Beth Fisher, whose Wise Acre restaurant in Minneapolis makes its own bacon from its owners' farm and uses it in countless guises. "It helps that it tastes so good in just about anything you put it in."
Being not-so-good for our health seems to matter little. In fact, Fisher calls it "the perfect 'naughty' treat -- with just a little bacon you get the powerful flavor of sweet, salty, smoky, earthy and meaty all over your palate. You don't need much bacon in any dish to enjoy the flavorful effects it lends to the final product."
That has helped create a cult following, with a primal food enhanced by modern technology.
"I think the Internet has a lot to do with" the bacon craze, Boenisch said. "People can get all sorts of recipes. It's mostly people 30 to 50. They're really learning how to cook, have got a little more money, want to be hip and have fun."
Jason Kallsen, 42, fits the mold. Founder of the food blog Minnesota Flavor, Kallsen goes through 8 pounds a month for a family of three. Besides its standard place at the breakfast table, the St. Paulite wraps steaks, roasts and other foods with bacon. "Breakfast, lunch and dinner," he said, "usually cooking it en masse, using the bacon fat for other things."
Unlike much of this country and Europe, Minnesota wasn't hit as hard by drought this year. Indeed, the farmers Boenisch talked to all said the corn crops were strong in their areas. But crop failures elsewhere mean much higher prices for feed, and gasoline prices have risen, as well. "Fuel and feed are huge in this business," Boenisch said. "Everything's driving up the price of corn and fuel."
Present and future price spikes thus have prompted many pig farmers to thin their herds. At the end of August, warehouses in the United States had 31 percent more pounds of pork than a year earlier, the Department of Agriculture reported.
Once that glut is gone, prices are likely to soar.
Places such as Wise Acre, with its built-in supply of pigs, might not be affected, but chef Fisher expects others to be paying more. "I would guess that because Minnesota did not have the drought as badly as other states, our supply could stay strong," she said. "But I also imagine that our producers will sell to the highest-paying buyer and that sure could short our supply in Minnesota.
That's not going to deter the likes of Kallsen. "As soon as I hear of a serious price increase," Kallsen said, "I'm buying 30 or 40 pounds to freeze."
Going without is not an option for bacon buffs like him. "You can just taste a connection with fire and smoke," he said, "something a little more primal. Plus bacon's just so damn good."
Bill Ward • 612-673-7643