The first thing I spotted when I arrived at Camp Bacon at 7:30 a.m. on the first Saturday in June was two suckling pigs roasting over a hardwood fire. The smell of meat wafting across the farm, a scent only strengthened by the applewood smoke coming from the centuries-old stone smokehouse located on the top of the hill. Though I thought I went to Camp Bacon on the early side, the crew of three men from Louisiana who were keeping watch over the live fire had me beat, arriving at 4:30 a.m. But the early start was paying off, as the pigs' skins visibly crisped up and fat dripped down onto the mulch below.
Camp Bacon started in 2009, and since then, bacon lovers from all over have gathered every June, for this five-day summer camp for bacon lovers. But, as I learned, actually attending Zingerman's Camp Bacon involved so much more than sitting around a campfire and eating bacon.
Unlike a traditional summer camp, there's no cabins or counselors. Instead, Camp Bacon is to a week of bacon-focused activities and events organized by the folks at Zingerman's in Ann Arbor, Michigan. So this year, over the course of the five days designated as Camp Bacon, you could've attended bacon-themed baking classes at Zingerman's Bakehouse, gone on a bacon-themed food tour of Detroit with Zingerman's Food Tours, attended a so-called Bacon Ball at Zingerman's Roadhouse, or even watched bacon-focused short films at the Camp Bacon Food Film Festival while eating bacon popcorn.
All of this leads up to the Main Event, a day-long bacon symposium hosted on Zingerman's Cornman Farms in Dexter, Michigan. There were about 80 guests who came to the farm this year, all of whom were stoked to eat bacon, naturally. But feeding the attendees more than just bacon is kind of the point of this particular event. After all, this year's tagline for the event was "Bacon for the Brain, Belly, and Soul." I even spotted a vintage Camp Bacon t-shirt that had the tagline "Davos for Bacon," and that's kind of the vibe.
The bulk of what actually happens at Camp Bacon's Main Event is lectures, hosted in a refurbished barn that was originally built in 1837. "You've got pork producers, you’ve got bacon curers, you’ve got writers, you’ve got chefs, consumers, and really from all over the country," said Ari Weinzweig, cofounder and founding partner of Zingerman's and the mastermind behind this event. "And I love that."
Weinzweig wrote Zingerman's Guide to Better Bacon, which is basically a primer in all things bacon, "And as part of the book, I made up the idea of Camp Bacon as sort of a joke, but often jokes are the best ideas, so a year or two later, we decided to actually start it," he explained. "The idea was to create what I think you’re experiencing now, which is really good learning but in a fun setting. Really good eating, but not without the intellectual and historical component that I think, to me, makes it so much more interesting."
So most of the bacon that I ate at Camp Bacon was paired with a presentation. For instance, a presentation about the history of pork in Korean cuisine, led by chef Ji Hye Kim, was paired with a pork appetizer from Miss Kim, her restaurant. (If you wanted more bacon though, you could always go to the grill in the back where Nueske's bacon was basically on tap.)
This year, the bacon experts included several pork farmers and cured meat producers, chefs, food writers and journalists, an expert in food and beverage market research, and even a mindfulness expert who started the day with a breathing exercise. My personal favorite was one speaker who used a long stick of salami as a pointer for his PowerPoint presentation about where, exactly, each cut of pork comes from on a pig. In case that display wasn't in-depth enough, however, attendees were also treated to a close-up look at where meat comes from with a live butchery demonstration on the barn's outdoor porch. The butchered meat was then raffled off at the end of the day by the butcher Brian Merkel, who jovially handed out slabs of pork belly and a so-called barbecue bundle.
And don't forget the food. Remember pig that had been roasting on the farm since 4:30 a.m.? It was served at lunch, along with boudin and rice dressing. The spread at breakfast was also nothing to sneeze at with two different types of bacon, bacon scones, bacon pecan cookies, scrambled eggs, and grits.
So yes, I ate a lot of bacon at Camp Bacon—to no one's surprise—but I left feeling comfortably full, not like bacon grease was coming out of my pores, which was a pleasant surprise. "So most of the bacon festivals—and there’s a lot of them—it’s mostly like eat a ton of bacon in weird formats and drink a lot of beer," said Weinzweig, "and there’s nothing wrong with that." But that's not the point of this bacon festival. "I’m not the biggest bacon eater in the world, by any means, but it’s just really more about using bacon as a way to bring people together and teach food history," said Weinzweig, "And I don’t think there’s anywhere else that really happens." So if you go to Camp Bacon next year, be sure to bring an empty stomach and an open mind.