This story was written by Chuck Wasserstrom and was published as a UTC News Release on Feb. 14, 2022.
Mark Johnson likes bacon.
He has always had an interest in history, too.
In “Food and Southern History,” Johnson, a lecturer in the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Department of History, gets to combine those passions.
In the course, students explore the history of the American South through its foodways, which refers to studying why and what people eat and its meaning. It entails many different processes: Cultivation and production, distribution, marketing, preparation and consumption.
Johnson, a UTC faculty member since 2019, said his interest in the history of Southern food stems from his time as a University of Alabama graduate school student.
“The Alabama State Department of Tourism and the Southern Foodways Alliance, which is a food think tank out of the University of Mississippi, co-sponsored a grant in conjunction with the state’s tourism campaign, ‘The Year of Alabama Barbeque,’” he recalled. “University of Alabama Professor Joshua Rothman got the grant, and he hired me to help him. I just kept going with it.”
The assignment led to Johnson publishing “An Irresistible History of Alabama Barbecue: From Wood Pit to White Sauce” in 2017.
Johnson’s current book project is on the cultural history of bacon.
“I’m asking a simple question, actually. How did bacon, which has been condemned by major world religions, dietary advice and—surprisingly—elites and cultural influencers, end up taking over the 21st century?” he said.
The topic of how bacon is made was the focus of a recent “Food and Southern History” class, as bacon really fits with the course theme.
“It is such a staple food,” Johnson said.
He and his students were treated to an interactive session led by James Scott, a UTC history alumnus (2014), former UTC adjunct instructor (2016-2017) and current teacher at Baylor School in Chattanooga.
Scott came to the Brock Hall class with a measuring scale, a vacuum-pack sealing machine, kosher salt, sugar, sodium nitrite—also known as pink salt—and a hog from North Carolina.
“It came as one giant hunk of pork,” he said.
Curing meats involves adding some combination of salt, sugar, nitrite and/or nitrate for preservation, flavor and color. Scott learned about curing bacon during his time as a UTC student, thanks to a book his brother-in-law sent him about charcuterie—dressed meats and meat dishes.
“I grew up eating country hams and lots of bacon, but I’d never done it myself. I wanted to give it a shot,” Scott said.
The guest instructor and students worked together on five sections of the hog’s belly. One part was left alone; Scott referred to it as: “Our control chunk o’pork. When we cook it, it’s going to taste a lot like a really fatty pork chop.”
Piece by piece, the other hog sections were seasoned. One with salt but left uncured. One with salt that will be cured. One with the mixture of salt, sugar, and sodium nitrite will later be smoked with hickory and oak. And one with the complete mix that will be smoked with applewood.
While discussing sodium nitrite’s uses in curing meats, Scott told a story about John Sevier—one of the founding fathers of the state of Tennessee—which led to a humorous exchange.
“On Sevier’s land, there were several caves that produced this kind of salt,” Scott told the class. “He didn’t say, ‘We’ve got sodium nitrite caves.’ He said, ‘We’ve got saltpeter caves.’ Saltpeter is an ingredient in our bacon. Does anybody know what else you can use saltpeter for?”
Multiple students quickly answered, “Gunpowder.”
“Can you tell them what you used to do in a previous life?” Johnson asked Scott.
“Before I came here as a student, I was an explosive ordnance disposal technician, so I got to play with explosives,” said Scott, a one-time U.S. Army member. “So I particularly love the fact that this combines my two favorite things: Explosions and pork products.”
As the students worked in groups to season the different sections, Scott used the vacuum sealer to start the curing process.
It will take a couple of weeks of refrigeration, turning the meat every two days, before it will be ready for the smoking process. Once it is fully cured and cooked, Scott will bring the bacon to Johnson’s classroom for a taste testing.
“Next time somebody asks you, ‘Have you ever cured your own bacon,’ you can go, ‘Yes, I have,’” Scott said with a laugh. “That’s part of every humanities education, right?”