August, believe it or not, is historically the biggest month for bacon sales. And this summer, Americans are eating unprecedented amounts of the stuff.
Bacon consumption set records in five of the first seven months of 1992. July consumption was 272.3 million pounds, versus the July 1991 record of 255.1 million.
Analysts in Chicago, where pork bellies are traded on the Mercantile Exchange, predict this month will be a record-setter as well. Sales of the bellies, from which bacon is made, are so far averaging nine million pounds a day.
The sales mark something of a bacon renaissance.
"Five years ago, bacon really got the shaft," said Mark Stevens, who follows pork bellies for Cargill Investor Services Inc. in Chicago. "All the cancer stories!
"But now that's worn off," he added. "People will eat bacon because they like it, and if the price is right, they like it even more."
Pork belly prices are way down, to 40.17 cents a pound on the Merc yesterday, which has encouraged wholesalers and retail shoppers to buy bacon. Area supermarkets are featuring bacon, which can cost upward of $3 a pound, on sale for as little as $1.20.
As pork belly prices drop, some suppliers are switching to a higher-quality bacon: center-cut instead of side-cut; imported, typically Canadian, instead of domestic.
"This year, we went into an imported belly - it's smaller, leaner, makes a nicer bacon," mused George Griffin, director of sales and marketing for Philadelphia-based meat wholesaler Dietz and Watson.
At Mayfair Diner in Northeast Philadelphia, co-owner Jack Mullholland also was able to "upgrade the type of bacon and keep costs stable" as prices fell earlier this year. His staff serves up to 300 pounds of bacon a week, he says, up from 270 last year. Bacon with eggs and with pancakes, in sandwiches and in burgers - 24 hours a day.
Ron Woodward, a neighborhood resident who dines at the Mayfair several times a week, sometimes squeezes in bacon twice a day.
Years ago, the trim Woodward, now 54, tried to heed nutritionists' warnings to avoid bacon, which in its tastiest form is loaded with fat, sodium and chemicals. "But you fall back into bad habits," he said, tucking into a grilled chicken sandwich with bacon.
And why not? Woodward volunteered that his cholesterol count is a bacon- resistant 170, a healthy 30 points below the 200 physicians consider worrisome.
"I think it's in your genes," he said. "My father's 85 years old, my mother's 84. I've been eating the same food all my life, and they have too."
And then, he lit a cigarette.
After the Woodward family longevity, the next mystery is why bacon consumption is so high in August. The thought of toiling over a splattering frying pan in the dog days of summer is hardly an appetizing one.
The most frequently cited theory: tomatoes. "Fresh tomatoes are plentiful," said Griffin of Dietz and Watson. "It's the No. 1 season for bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwiches."
Well, sure, this close to New Jersey, Tomato Mecca, you'd expect to hear that.
But then comes an echo from Iowa: "Tomatoes," said Joe Leathers of the National Pork Council in Des Moines. "We always see it when the tomato crop is big - bacon consumption is up."
A second theory: Folks are eating out more, letting somebody else stand over the grill. Bacon cheeseburgers, chicken-and-bacon sandwiches and club sandwiches are hot summertime items at fast-food chains like Wendy's and Burger King.
"Once those guys get into the act, they use up an awful lot of product," said Philip Handel, assistant professor of food science at Drexel University.
(A bonus cooking tip: You can cook bacon in a microwave oven, avoiding all the heat and splatter. Just wrap it in a few sheets of paper towel.)