There was a moment during my adventure at the World Food Championships that I’ll never forget. One of my fellow judges, an amazingly friendly grillmaster named Michael McDearman, struck up a conversation with me once we’d completed our official duties as bacon judges. After telling him a little bit about my very fortunate life as a Bacon Critic, he said, rather matter of factly, “There’s someone you need to meet.” Intrigued, I followed him over to the event’s “Tasting Village,” where he introduced me to William “Bill E” Stitt, chef and proprietor of the Old 27 Grill in Fairhope, Alabama, not too far from Mobile.
Stitt (“the second T is silent,” he noted) fashions his own brand of porcine goodness from the humble Fairhope roadhouse, a charming, wooden joint out on the verdant Alabama Highway 181. He was there that day to demo his bacon, which my new buddy Michael said “is absolutely going to be the next Benton’s.” And if you’re familiar with Benton's—beloved for years now by top chefs for their brilliant country hams and, naturally, bacon—you’ll know that this is not a small boast.
After trying Bill E’s bacon, however, that boast didn’t seem so outlandish. This is some lovingly, painstakingly handcrafted stuff that literally made me moan in porky, smoky ecstasy—and this, mind you, was after I tasted ten rounds of bacon dishes that morning.
What makes Bill E’s bacon so jaw-droppingly good? Here’s where the piggy mastery lies:
It all starts with the hogs
According to Stitt, “What I'm looking for is a combination of Pure Rock Red and Chantilly White pigs. I like that good mix of hog, and I like that I can get them to the weight I desire. They come from small family farms, sometimes third or fourth generation, in Southern Iowa and Southern Illinois. And I'm really pleased with the quality of the product I get... when I get it, it was slaughtered that day or the day before. And when they arrive on the truck, they're not even stored anywhere; they immediately go into the cure that day. I get the whole bellies, guaranteed to come from the same hog, and with absolutely nothing done to them.
“A lot of people pick on me and say, ‘Bill E, why don't you use Alabama hogs?’ And I learned a whole lot about the hogs by spending a lot of time on the farms and with the farmers. Back when I was in Yazoo City, Mississippi, as a kid, I was in 4H raising hogs. It's not that I'm against getting hogs from Alabama, but I've just never been able to find the quality premium protein in the quantity that I'm looking for. It's the same reason I don't buy Wisconsin oysters. I want my pigs to come from where the feed is.”
The cure is super simple
“It's very traditional,” Bill E says “Heavy heavy, thick kosher salt, brown sugar with real molasses, and then I use a pink curing salt with no nitrates. (FYI, that’s sodium nitrite, not nitrate). That's required, because that's what America's looking for right now. And that's it. Nothing else.”
There’s science behind the smoke
“It’s all about hickory,” according to Stitt. “That's where it all started. Just one smoke. It has nothing to do with time, and everything to do with temperature. The hickory doesn't give it too much smoke. You know, people will talk about smoke levels from one to ten, and when you start to get to six and a half, seven and above, you're starting to lose that pork, and I want the pork to stand out. So that's what I get from hickory. I don't cremate it.”
It’s been sung to (really)
“We make our bacon right behind the stage at the Grill, so therefore it's 'serenaded by songwriters.' When I opened up the Old 27, I built a little room in the back where I could perfect my recipes, my smokes, and cures, and eventually came up with a product that's second to none. I just really want to offer a great traditional protein that chefs are going to look at and say, 'I want this on the center of the plate.' I don't want it on top of a burger... I want a burger on top of it! ... That’s my ultimate goal: bacon being on the center of the plate, not just on top or wrapped around something.”
As for where you might be able to find this magical, premium pork product, it’s on menus around the South (with an expansion to New Orleans restaurants in 2017), and you can order your own on their Facebook page. Which you should totally do, if you can’t find your way out to Fairhope.
Or, as Bill E is noted to say, “Give the L and T an inferiority complex on your next BLT.”
Consider me sold.