Chapter 01.00: Bacon, my Teacher!

Introduction to Bacon & the Art of Living

The story of bacon is set in the late 1800s and early 1900s when most of the crucial developments in bacon took place. The plotline occurs in the 2000s, with each character referring to a natural person and actual events. The theme is a kind of “steampunk” where modern mannerisms, speech, clothes, and practices are superimposed on a historical setting. Characters interact with one another with all the historical and cultural bias that goes with this. The period of technology it covers is breathtaking. Beginning in pre-history, it traces the development of curing technology until the present, where bacon curing is possible without adding nitrites.

Bacon is more than a culinary delight! It taught me the meaning of life. Life consumed me from the start. I learned the human mental pictures of language, religion, nationalism, sport, school, music, history, and poetry. If humans did not exist, neither would these experiences. It exists because we exist – because of our minds. They are conditionally true – the precondition to their truth is the human cultural commonality.

The Most Elemental

Michael E. Porter taught me in my early 20s to look for the seed of any cultural expression or technology. Understand the seed and you will understand the tree. So, I sought the most fundamental elements that determine the essential characteristic of anything, whether it is physical or abstract. Looking back at the beginning of human consciousness, the birthplace of our view on anything – my vision was obscured.

The Fog of Antiquity

The time before writing existed was a fog. This contains tiny particles of light and refractions. As we can know the make-up of distant stars by analysing their light, we can decipher the knowledge of the ancients by studying the particles of the fog of antiquity. Food preparation is an ancient light that has travelled to us through the history of humanity. What did people eat in Africa before writing appeared? What technology did they have? What songs were sung around the fires? Recipes or fractions thereof exist, transmitted from mother to daughter, and they form the tapestry of our earliest beginnings and human perceptions. After my 38th birthday, powers greater than me determined that the crystal that would refract the light of the reality of everything to me would be bacon.

Meat Curing’s Ancient Origins

Meat is unpretentious, and its recent bedrock was bacon and ham. It fueled armies and sustained travellers; empires were built on it. Women guarded its secrets before artisan guilds became the custodians of its principles and practices. The curing of meat became the enabler of the expression of 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, meat curing was essential to ensure nutrition. It enabled the human desire called “wanderlust” in German. In later years, evil human desires would equally be associated with it – greed, slavery, and lordship, but these only added to the mystique surrounding cured meat.

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. It is not something done to the meat. It is the unlocking of secret powers inside the meat itself with the aid of salts or waters or what was naturally excreted from the human and animal bodies, which would then facilitate seemingly magical changes. Meat that had undergone these changes lasted longer, tasted delicious, and its colour would “come to life again” by morphing from a dull brown to a bright pinkish/ reddish colour. Most of the excrement of the human and animal body – sweat, urine, saliva – are potent agents to elicit this enigmatic change in meat along with certain salts and vegetables.

Here I am discussing the ultimate value in life from the perspective of Hinduism with my great friends Anil Jatwani and Samar Nair at the HFM Temple, Ilupeju in Lagos.

My First Revelation: Curing is Natural

If we destroy all the religious books on the earth and humanity disappears and re-appears, there will be no religion as we know it. I am sure there will be the perception of a Supreme Being because the instinct that such a Being exists is common to humanity. It may be the consequence of our ability to think in the 3rd person, or it may be grounded in the perception of the “unknown”. I suspect it may be the intuitive connection to the living universe.

The manifestation of our religious though, will, in all likelihood, be completely different from what we have today. I suspect all cultural expressions would be utterly different, including languages, clothing, morality, laws and the ordering of our economies. There would, however, be one constant – given enough time, the understanding of science would eventually merge into the same basic knowledge as we have today because science is ultimately not the expression of culture handed down to us from our parents but calibrated to reality.

The curing reaction would likewise be re-discovered and exploited, even if entirely other culinary traditions develop. The reason is that curing is a natural process. The power of nature allows huge and heavy ships laden with many tones of produce, people, and ammunition to stay afloat by unseen and natural forces. Meat curing is the same process that allows for the natural, healthy functioning of the human and animal body. It was different, for example, from cooking a soup where various bits of ingredients are added or baking bread where heat causes the parts of the bread to clump together, rise and dry out to form a new, delicious whole.

Early humans understandably confused meat curing with a cultural (human) notion of a substance that could give us eternal life or infinite consciousness. Since the curing reaction seemed to 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 that 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, this life-giving transformation must also work for the living. 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, used to cure meat in antiquity, 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 also for the living. The same elements that stimulate meat curing can heal wounds and other human ailments, such as the relief of chest pain. Some worked out that by combining curing salts with saliva, for example, its potency is enhanced many times over to relieve disorders associated with restricted blood flow.

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. Humans confused human thought and habits with what is natural and sought a cross-over of nature into culture. The clear and simple fact is that curing is a calibration of the natural world. It uses natural ingredients to elicit a completely natural reaction, which it mimics so entirely that, in many instances, the exact natural ingredients responsible for the curing in meat, are also responsible for the same reaction in our bodies, without which mammalian life would not be possible.

My Second Revelation: Meat Curing is 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 this holistic understanding was lost. Meat curing is viewed in isolation in various communities where certain aspects of the trade persist in its various manifestations: Some communities practice salt-only long-term curing while others achieve the same results with spice added to the meat in places like Italy and Spain. In Turkey, traditions persist where spice curing is combined with dry-ageing techniques. These are fragmented bits of knowledge viewed as oddities but, instead, must be seen as refractions from antiquity. Manifestations of a whole. The “whole”, obscured by the fog of antiquity, is the life-giving aspect of meat curing.

Can Something of Infinite Benefit be Harmful?

However, everything related to cured meat has not always been positive, and some linked it with disease. Humans started to make absolute pronouncements on relative matters, depending on multiple factors. Imminent scientists from the modern world report that people who consume cured meat tend to suffer from specific ailments. They made the 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 that make many foods turn against our bodies. They chose simple statements that obscure truth over the wonder of complexity.

In recent years, rigorous scientific investigation has elucidated the essential role of the curing reaction in meat. The curing reaction is critical to the functioning of the body of all animals, including humans. The body can create the curing reaction in response to a host of diseases and invasive enemy microorganisms and viruses. More than a defence mechanism, the curing reaction in the body generates chemical species involved in functions such as the signalling between different body parts.

Most recently, we discovered that microorganisms, bacteria, in particular, can create the curing reaction in meat in a way that mimics the responses produced by what came to be known as curing salts, closely linked with how our bodies produce the curing reaction without the aid of salts. Certain bacteria feeding on meat solicit the curing reaction in the same way as curing salts, plants, spices, waters and human bodily fluids (urine, sweat, and saliva do). The primary mechanism is the same as how the body creates these reactions “by itself!” It answers whether meat curing is possible without curing salts and, for that matter, without spices, plant material, or human or animal bodily fluids. The answer is an overwhelming “Yes!”

Is it possible that what has been known since antiquity as having significant health benefits to humans could have detrimental effects? Can millions of years of human experience be wrong about cured meat? The answer is the interconnectedness of everything. Any classification of cured meat as cancer-causing is incorrect in that it presents the conclusion as an objective statement of truth that stands independent of any other fact while it is, in reality, at best, a conditionally true statement. The effect of cured meat on the body is not the same as alcohol or cigarette smoke. It depends on things like the body mass of the consumer, their general health and the portion size, in the same way as white bread and red meat in general. Salt and fat levels probably have a far more significant effect on health than the cured elements of meat and nobody will classify fat or salt as cancer-causing by itself.

A false narrative is, however, an opportunity to learn and grow; where I was initially annoyed by this wrong view, I came to appreciate it. It intensified my search for the conditions that make cured meat good or bad. Under certain conditions, cured meat can be dangerous, just as milk, water or oxygen can be harmful to the human body under certain conditions and at certain consumption levels. The false notions of cancer-causing thrust me into 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. It started with a grounding in the natural world and quickly extended to my mental world. It allowed me to know myself. From the perspective of the natural world, 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 tremendous 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. A call to science while embracing my limitations as a human and my small but fantastic role in the story of life and death!

I travelled the globe and wrote letters to my kids and colleagues reporting what I was learning. I present much of the work by publishing these letters, interspersed with chapters where I advance the storyline and explain essential details. 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.

Bacon taught me about health, nutrition, and science and my relationship with the entire human race, my family and the natural world. It continued to challenge my notions of purpose and destiny. It allowed me an unhinged experience of that fantastic wanderlust concept, foundational to its first emergence in our culinary traditions. More than anything else, it allowed me to be a human being in the ultimate sense. The worlds it allowed me to travel through time and vast oceans!

This book is the chronicles of these travels. It became my story of love and life, tragedy and triumph, deceit and manipulation by others, respect and honour, remarkable and enduring friendships, and camaraderie about life and death.

What follows is the story of Bacon & the Art of Living!


(c) eben van tonder

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