Bacon’s history dates back thousands of years to 1500 B.C. in which the Chinese were curing pork bellies with salt, creating an early form of bacon, although pigs were domesticated in China in 4900 B.C. and were also being raised in Europe by 1500 B.C. Speculation exists that the Romans and Greeks learned bacon production and curing through conquests in the Middle East. The Romans improved pig breeding and spread pork production throughout their empire.
The Ancient Romans also had an early version of bacon, which they called “petaso,” a shoulder of pig boiled with dried figs, browned, and served with wine. Throughout the Medieval Times, bacon and bacon fat were very important ingredients used by Anglo-Saxon peasants for cooking.
The word “bacon” may have come from various sources, particularly from the French word “bako,” the common Germanic “bakkon,” and the Old Teutonic word “backe,” all of which refer to the back of the pig, and date back before the 12th century. In the 16th Century, the word “bacoun” or bacon was used to refer to any kind of pork. It was only in the 17th Century that “bacon” was used to refer exclusively to the salted and smoked belly that we know today as bacon. In Yorkshire and Tamworth, there were breeds of pigs that were specifically grown for making bacon.
Pigs came to North America through several means.
- Christopher Columbus brought 8 pigs to Cuba at the insistence of Queen Isabella.
- Hernando de Soto brought 13 pigs to Tampa Bay in 1539. According to the National Pork Board:
Native Americans reportedly became very fond of the taste of pork, resulting in some of the worst attacks on the de Soto expedition. By the time of de Soto’s death three years later, his pig herd had grown to 700 head, not including the ones his troops had consumed, those that ran away and became wild pigs (and the ancestors of today’s feral pigs or razorbacks), and those given to the Native Americans to keep the peace. The pork industry in America had begun.
- An influx of pigs from England came during the 1600s.
The popular phrase “bring home the bacon” can be traced to the twelfth century, in the English town of Dunmow. The church in the town promised to reward a side of bacon to any married man who swore before God and the congregation that he would not quarrel with his wife for a year and a day. The husband who could bring home the bacon was highly esteemed by his community.
In the Second World War, bacon played an important role during the time of rationing. It gained popularity as reasonably priced meat for families to consume on a regular basis. People returned the bacon grease left from cooking bacon to their butcher, who in turn donated the bacon fat to the war effort. Among many uses, bacon fat was used as incendiary devices and for making explosives.
Today’s pig is lean and yields about 15 pounds of bacon per hog. Think about this: last year 1.7 billion pounds of bacon were used in U.S. food service; that’s more than 113 million pigs! Hog production and the making of bacon sure has come a long way.