IF BACON is the answer, what's the question?
I don't mean a comment-thread question like, "How could anyone want to harm these adorable scampering piglets?" I mean in brick-and-mortar kitchens where the question seems to be, "What food goes with everything?"
"Dude, just put bacon on it, bacon makes it better," Memphis Taproom owner Brendan Hartranft said, imitating a surfer voice. But with tasty, innovative offerings, the Kensington bar is among those showing that bacon also goes well with compassion.
Meatless bacon isn't new. Oddly, given bacon's "meaty" status, it's pretty easy to fake with plants and smoke flavoring. One veggie variety was test-marketed in Indiana in the late 1960s. And people have long enjoyed Betty Crocker Bac-Os bits and McCormick's Bacn Pieces Bacon Flavored Bits without noticing that these products are animal-free.
Recently, there have been some fascinating new entries in the faux-bacon world.
For years, tempeh (fermented soy) was the go-to base, paired with lettuce and tomato for a BLT at thousands of earnest veggie cafes. But just as soy milk cleared the way for almond and other alt-milks, today many alt-bacons are crowding the plate. Mushroom, seitan, coconut, eggplant, jackfruit, carrots, beets, and even rice paper can be pressed into service.
If bacon goes with just about anything, so, it seems, it can be made from just about anything. Leinana Two Moons' just-released Baconish (Vegan Heritage Press) is a comprehensive guide. First, she covers making vegan bacon with various bases, then she offers dishes that work best with each.
She makes the point that what we enjoy about bacon is not that it takes the life of a pig, but the way it contributes to the flavor and texture of a dish. "I want the word 'bacon' to mean those flavors, not something that comes from an animal," she said in a phone interview. To that end, Baconish doesn't obsess on the "OMG it's exactly the same!" angle. The point, said Two Moons, is for "vegan bacons [to] taste good to anybody just as what they are."
That's one reason Memphis Taproom calls its signature vegan sandwich "smoked coconut," avoiding the B-word. "We try not to make it that we're mimicking something, but rather we want to evoke a sense memory," Hartranft said of the sandwich that's been on the menu since 2010, along with a growing slate of vegan-friendly pub offerings.
Blackbird Pizza was also ahead of the curve, going first with house-made seitan and tempeh bacon for pizzas, then moving into coconut bacon, according to owner Mark Mebus. "Coconut strips are about the right size and shape, and the way they brown is similar," he said. "Texturally, it comes out a lot more like bacon. But at the end of the day, there is that coconutty aftertaste."
Nowadays, Mebus said, Blackbird mostly uses Upton's Naturals, which he said "does a fine job" of playing the bacon role.
Coconut bacon has the buzz right now, bringing the advantage of natural fat that sizzles into a crispy strip and having a persistent coconut flavor. That's one reason it's important to keep context in mind.
"For dishes where bacon is cooked, like quiche or shells, I recommend either seitan or tempeh or tofu," Two Moons said. "They hold up better to heat and immersion" than vegetable-based versions.
Coconut bacon she uses mainly as topping: "I recommend sprinkling it on salad or soup right before eating."
Rachel Klein, whose Miss Rachel's Pantry this month expands its daytime hours (8 a.m.-3 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday, until 6 p.m. Friday), said she's had great success with trumpet-mushroom bacon.
"We slice the stems really thin," and use it in the cafe's popular grilled-cheese sandwiches, Klein said. "Coconut bacon has a better texture on colder things. We use it on salads."
I chatted with Klein at V Marks the Shop's Vegan Mac-Down Sunday, where she served as a judge. (Congrats to vegan macaroni-and-cheese champ LJ Steinig of Philadelphia.) At that event, bacon was well-represented on sampling tables as a topping. The winner of the People's Choice, the bloggers known as Plant Power Couple, had coconut bacon as a topping and an internal component. It created a hearty, rich flavor - definitely coconut-infused, but savory.
Given the links between processed meats and cancer, pig-based bacon is now just one option - a more problematic one - among many.
Additionally, with their suitability for Jews, Muslims, and other "no pork" denominations, vegan products can bring people with disparate diets together. Memphis Taproom's Hartranft sees the venue's varied menu as "welcoming people back to the table. We want to be an 'everybody' restaurant," he said.
For the home cook, Baconish is a rich source of surprising novelties. "It's not like having turkey as your only alternative," Two Moons noted. "We have so many more options than meat eaters!"
Vance Lehmkuhl is a cartoonist, writer, musician and 15-year vegan. "V for Veg" chronicles plant-based eating in and around Philadelphia. VforVeg@phillynews.com or @V4Veg on Twitter.