Introduction to Bacon & the Art of Living
The story of bacon is set in the late 1800s and early 1900s when most of the important developments in bacon took place. The plotline takes place in the 2000s with each character referring to a real person and actual events. The theme is a kind of “steampunk” where modern mannerisms, speech, clothes and practices are superimposed on a historical setting. Modern people interact with old historical figures with all the historical and cultural bias that goes with this.
Bacon is more than a culinary delight! The universe chose this humble dish to be my teacher. It took many years to prepare me so that I could receive its lessons. First I had to be disillusioned. From my earliest consciousness, I was totally engrossed in my experience of life. I was taught the human mental pictures of language, religion, family, nationalism, geography, sport, school, music, history, mathematics, poetry, woodwork, war and love. At first, I believed everything. Love was unconditional, deceit was foreign, and life was simple. I must have been six or seven when I started noticing cracks in aspects of my belief system. That the worldview I was being taught was at times at odds with real life.
I wanted to figure it out and started testing using simple experiments. The first step was always to understand the system. Initially, I completely immersed myself in it. I studied the systems from within and not as an objective onlooker. I then design experiments based on the internal logic of the system. If a and b, naturally should follow c. I would change a or b or sometimes both while observing for changes in c.
The Most Elemental
In my 20s as I discovered the work of Michael E Porter and under his influence I sharpened my investigative strategy. I sought to identify the most fundamental elements which determine the essential characteristic of anything whether it is physical or abstract. The next question was this – are the fundamental elements fixed? Do they exist objectively and independently and if not, what are the things that influence their particular set of characteristics? Almost always I found such characteristics to be conditional.
This testing of anything and everything of great value and interest to me became my single-minded quest to the exclusion of any other pursuit in life. I started to appreciate the unfathomable value of old traditions. The benefit of others, infinitely more able to analyse than myself with often years of experience which I did not have. Their voices came with clarity, filtered by the sands of time into a purity that I enjoyed in my current existence that is very noisy and distracted by everything that the modern world offers.
Mental constructs which were discredited through experimentation reappeared in different perspectives as I changed my angle of looking at them. For example, I started to value the formative influence that the Christian tradition had in my life by instilling the value of disciplines like archaeology and the interpretation of ancient texts. Within the Christian framework, I wrested with the distance between us and the ancients who wrote the bible. Using the same techniques I was able to very carefully discover a body of ancient knowledge that holds the key to much of the puzzle of meat curing. I am indebted to my Christian teachers for schooling me in these. On a side note, spirituality and my connection with the mysterious “unknown” grew and I later embraced it as a valuable part of my human experience and a rich way to connect to others.
The Fog of Antiquity
The time before writing existed has a fog that obscures it from us. I discovered that the fog of millions of years contains small particles of light and reflections and just as we can know the make-up of distant stars by analysing its light, so we can decipher the knowledge of the ancients by studying the particles of the fog of antiquity. I learned that knowledge is not only acquired by sight, smell, hearing and touch but by our entire being. An example of this is my quest to know the food traditions of ancient civilisations. In Africa, I want to know the food people ate. The transmission of recipes from mother to daughter is like reciting poems or songs and carries clues about ancient times not written down anywhere. Even where I have no ancient writing to fall back on or recipes handed down I discovered that by visiting the old settlements, now uninhabited, with only ruins remaining, sitting amongst these or walking through them – the ancients would speak to me till I can see the flames of the fires where woman are preparing supper and I smell the aroma of the ancient dishes.
It was not until my 38th birthday that powers greater than me determined that the crystal that would refrac the light of the reality of everything to me would be bacon. The new world of discovery started to open up, leading me into lands I could not imagine existed. All this through my pursuit of bacon which is so mundane that nobody has bothered to write the comprehensive story of its development. It became my teacher of the marvels of the natural world.
Meat Curing’s Ancient Origins
I love the unpretentious beginnings of meat curing which is the bedrock of bacon and ham. Its secrets were initially guarded by women before artisan guilds took over as custodians of its principles and practices. The curing of meat became intimately linked with the earliest desire of humans to explore far away from their habitation. When the horse was domesticated and long-distance travel became a thing as was already the case with long sea voyages, the curing of meat was essential to ensure nutrition thus enabling the fulfilment of a basic human desire for exploration and discovery. It made international trade possible as fleets and caravans of animals and people trading their commodities around the globe relied on its power to deliver nutrition. Other more unfortunate human characteristics were likewise enabled by meat curing – the desire to dominate. Cured meat would become the staple of armies for the building of empires.
It facilitated another basic human instinct of immortality, our final destination and our relationship with the departed. Here we get the first glimpse that bacon curing is not the application of an external preservative to food or colourant to meat. The curing of bacon and hams is not something done to the meat. It is unlocking secret powers inside the meat with the aid of salts or waters or what was naturally excreted from the human and animal bodies which would then facilitate the change in the essential nature of the meat. This change in the character of the meat made it last longer, taste delicious and caused the meat to “come to life again” by changing from a dull brown to a bright pinkish/ reddish colour. The ancients found that most of the excrements of the human and animal body namely sweat and urine were powerful agents to elicit this enigmatic change in meat.
Like the power of nature which allows huge and heavy ships, laden with many tonnes of produce, people and ammunition to stay afloat by natural forces that early humans did not fully understand; yet, they mastered its application – in the same way, the ancients could appreciate the fact that the curing of meat was something natural, intimately associated with the normal, healthy functioning of the human and animal body. In this sense, it was completely different from cooking a soup where different bits of ingredients are added or the baking of bread where heat cause the parts of the bread to clump together, rise and dry out to form a new, appetising whole.
The earliest cognitive and conscious humans recognised this. Since it could bring meat back to life, could this not prevent our deceased relatives and other loved ones from decaying? Bacon and hams, the curing of meat became the bedrock which allowed mummification to develop as stories from around the world were told by travellers of corpses in distant desert lands that do not undergo decay if they are exposed to particular salts, so powerful that thousands of years later we still have these naturally mummified bodies with us. They knew what salts caused this because women used the same salts in preserving meat. They started experimenting with the salts and applied them to the deceased with astonishing success, being able, not to bring the dead to life again, but to prevent decay!
The next progression naturally followed from the previous. If it could bring old meat back to life and safeguard the deceased from decay, surely this life-giving transformation must work for the living also. So, they incorporated it into the much-prized elixir of immortality. The quest to find a cocktail that would allow us to live forever and if we could not live forever, would have the ability to stay off the outwards ravages of old age at least for a time. They not only experimented with the salts responsible for curing. They applied the same bodily experiments of sweat, urine and saliva to the skin and bathed in it as is done to this day in India where cow urine is considered holy by some. They found that it kept the skin young and prevented acne in teens.
They observed that it indeed possessed life-giving power not just for the dead, but the living also. The same elements which stimulate meat curing can heal wounds and a host of other human ailments such as the relief of chest pain. Some were able to work out that by combining curing salts with saliva, for example, its potency is enhanced many times over.
Spices had the same effect on meat especially noticed by people living in the Mediterranean and the nations around the Black sea. To this day stories persist that these people can cure meat without the salts commonly associated with curing.
Meat Curing – A Life-Giving Principle?
The ancients knew that certain salts were not the only curing agents. The millions of years separating us from them means that this knowledge was lost except in a few isolated communities where certain aspects of the trade persist in salt-only long-term curing, spice curing in Italy and Spain and drying techniques in Turkey. These are however fragmented bits of knowledge viewed as oddities and nothing more. The wonder, the life-giving aspect revealed in meat curing has for the most part been lost.
Everything related to cured meat has, however not always been positive and some linked it with disease. Humans who do not understand that the answer to the fundamental question of the most basic realities of life is not fixed, started to make absolute pronouncements on matters which are relative, depending on multiple factors. Imminent scientists from the modern world report that people who consume cured meat tend to suffer from certain ailments. They made the fatal error of concluding that cured meat is unhealthy, causing cancer. In making this assertion, they chose to ignore the fundamental importance of the curing reaction to human and mammalian existence and the complex factors which make many foods turn against our bodies. They chose simple statements that obscure truth over the wonder of complexity.
In recent years through rigorous scientific investigation, the essential role of the curing reaction in meat has been elucidated. It was discovered that the curing reaction is essential to the functioning of the body of all animals, including humans. The body has the inherent ability to create the curing reaction in response to a host of diseases and invasive enemy microorganisms and viruses. More than a defence mechanism only, the curing reaction in the body generates chemical species involved in functions such as the signalling between different parts of the body.
Most recently we discovered that microorganisms, bacteria, in particular, can create the curing reaction in meat in a way that mimics the reactions created by what came to be known as curing salts, closely linked with how our bodies create the curing reaction without the aid of salts. In other words, certain bacteria, feeding on parts inherent in meat solicits the curing reaction in the same way as curing salts, plants, spices, waters and human bodily fluids such as urine, sweat and saliva do. The basic mechanism is the same as how the body creates these reactions “by itself!” This has been a remarkable discovery and ultimately answers the question if meat curing is possible without curing salts and for that matter, without spices or plant material or human or animal bodily fluids. The answer to this question is an overwhelming “yes!”
Can Something of Infinite Benefit be Harmful?
Let’s return to the question related to a possible link between cured meat and disease and ask the important question about the health effects of cured meat as follows. Is it possible that what has been known since antiquity as having great health benefits to humans, could have detrimental effects also? This of course relates to curing salts in particular. Can millions of years of human experience be wrong about cured meat? We already eluded to the answer. The resolution of the question is in the understanding of the interconnectedness of everything. That any classification of cured meat as cancer-causing is wrong in that it incorrectly presents the conclusion as an objective statement of truth which stands independent of any other fact while it is in reality at best only a conditionally true statement. Assigning cured meat with the designation of cancer-causing these scientists reveal a lack of understanding of the interconnectedness of life and a strawman position is presented about the modern curing industry. This is a very serious error as it portrays the false use of science.
Life taught me that even a false narrative is an opportunity to learn and grow and where I at first was annoyed by this wrong view I came to appreciate it. It intensified my own search for the conditions that make cured meat either good or bad. It forced me to look deeper than I would have done and to expose the fact that under certain conditions cured meat can be dangerous just as milk or water or oxygen can be harmful to the human body under certain conditions. More than anything, these false notions trusted me in the realm of nutrition. Bacon became the doorway that taught me about the relationship between humanity and our food.
My Teacher is Bacon!
Bacon became my teacher. Worlds opened up that have been lost to time, obscured in the fog of antiquity. Meat curing’s scope of influence is breathtaking. It aided almost every great human endeavour. The loss of this knowledge is tragic and I set out to tell its story from the perspective of my discovery of its secrets.
On my many travels around the globe, I wrote letters to my kids and colleagues recounting what I am learning. I present much of the work by publishing these letters, interspersed with chapters where I advance the storyline and explain essential detail. Like bacon, I also speak from a very specific environment that impacts the presentation of the facts. The southernmost tip of the great African continent became the backdrop of my discoveries and from here I set out on a global quest to learn how to make the best bacon on earth.
In the end, bacon not only taught me about health, nutrition and science but about my relationship with the entire human race and with my family. As Bacon taught me about life, the lessons reached into the most basic realities of my existence. Its story became my own story of love and life, tragedy and triumph, deceit and manipulation by others, respect and honour, great and enduring friendships and comradery.
What follows is the story of Bacon & the Art of Living!
(c) eben van tonder
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