Bacon and the art of living: Preface


old cape town

In June 2014 I started a writing project, “Bacon and the art of living”. I wanted to tell the story of Woodys against the back drop of the development of the global pork processing industry with an emphasis on Cape Town.

I wondered about the development of bacon itself.  Why do we make bacon the way we do? How did the use of the different ingredients come about? Whose idea was it in the first place? What is this persons name who started to use a particular ingredient or developed it? Where did he or she live and why did they decide to cure bacon this way?

I thought that most of the information would be lost in antiquity. As I started my search I realised that I was wrong as little by little an amazing story unfolded.

What I discovered is a fascinating and multi-faceted story!

Large developments created a musical base line for the song of bacon. The synthesizing of ammonia, the development of freezing and refrigeration technology and the need to feed the old world from the new at the end of the 19th century.

Notes and melody were added by developments in the spice industry, hygiene standards, deboning, breeding and slaughtering techniques.

Consumer demands started to dictate and almost right from the start became a perpetually repeating refrain with every stanza in the song of bacon.

Over 150 years it grew through ebbs and flows. Other notes were added by the development of more ingredients that play a functional role in processing.

Brute willpower and entrepreneurship blended the base line and the other notes.  A simple melody became a symphony.

Every ingredient and every part of the process has its own story. The more I discovered, the more I realised that this is a story that must be told.

The composers of this melody are not laboratories or faceless, nameless individuals. They are real flesh and blood people and corporations who in contributing to the art of bacon, also sang their own unique songs.

As I did my research, these individuals came to life as colourful characters who emerge from the obscurity of history.  As charismatic as Cecil John Rhodes and Barney Bernato and yet, most I have never heard of.

Here I set their stories against a fictional backdrop, loosely based on some real-life experiences of Oscar and myself and the amazing Woodys team.

I am not the best man to tell the story.  I am working full time in our pork processing company, in Cape Town with the extraordinary demands of a young company in a demanding industry. I have two teenage children.

After weeks of research, I realized that I do not have the time, money or a detailed understanding of all the chemistry involved to do this project justice.

Information is hard to come by. Weeks of research advance the story only a little.

A solution presented itself from experience I have in past writing projects. I have discovered that people are eager to participate in story telling. They get involved and share information. This gave me the confidence to open the project to anyone who has anything to contribute.

All input will be welcomed, investigated and included if it is relevant and adds to the overall story or the actual writing.

Contributors will be listed as co-contributors and their contributions referenced and acknowledged.

Telling this story will be a global collaboration and will belong to the industry and the world. The story of bacon and the art of living.



Why embark on this study?  Why the time, money and energy spend on discovering what has been done before?  Isn’t it enough to simply copy what is being done today?

What we do remain predicated on the one hand on the practical skill and artisanship of people with years of experience and on the other hand, on science, advanced in universities and meat institutes around the world.  It is our duty to learn all we can from the artisans and to apply science to describe and understand it.  Together with the artisans, science improves on it!

Nothing is new under the sun.  This same relationship existed between generations where the practical knowledge of food preservation and preparation resided with the grandmothers and grandchildren went to university to study what modern science has discovered and what their grandmothers have been doing for years.

I read an insightful short article by Anna Barrows who wrote an introduction for The Journal of Home Economics, published by the American Home Economics Association, Volume X, 1918, page 39 and 40.  She writes in the last year of WWI.

She begins with a John Ruskin phrase from his book Elements of Crystallisation, “the economy of your great grand-mothers and the science of modern chemists”.

She continues,  “Often it is the chemist’s discoveries that teach us thrift, and over and over again we find that the ‘glorified common-sense,’ which is one definition of science, was a characteristic of our great grand-mothers.

Women of many generations ago found out by experiment that the scalding of the vinegar or the syrup and pouring it hot over the pickle or preserves for three days in succession insured these products against ferments and molds. Only a few days ago a leading worker in agriculture told of watching his grandmother save and dry orange peel that she might have it to “make the jelly jell;” he had remembered it but never saw the reason until he was looking over some of his wife ‘s home economics books.

The suggestion reported by Miss Stanley’, of a 30 per cent starch paste “to take the place of the elastic gluten of wheat” is another instance where the “findings ” of modern chemists merely verify the “doings” of the grandmothers.

All these and many similar incidents seem to justify the old man whose neighbour twitted him saying, “Now your boy has come from college I suppose he is telling you lots that you don’t know.” To this the reply came, “No, he is only telling me the things I know, in words that I don’t understand.” Yet eventually he might explain many of the things done, as well as modify many of the processes.

In these days of stress our aim should be to gather together every scrap of inherited wisdom from the past and put it in words that he who “runs may read” and understand and do.” St. Paul. Anna Barrows.

This is the reason for the study and it is a story so that my son and daughter will read it sooner, rather than later.

Eben van Tonder
Cape Town
July 2014

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