Perhaps the essential question here — the existential question — is this: What is a snack?
Must it be crunchy, salty, sweet, or chewy? Or can it have any attributes at all, so long as it is “a light meal: food eaten between regular meals,” as the Merriam-Webster definition would have it?
Can it be bacon?
Last week Dunkin’ introduced its latest product, Snackin’ Bacon. Hold the eggs, hold the bread: The cherrywood-smoked strips, brushed with brown sugar and speckled with coarse cracks of black pepper, are served by themselves in a small paper sack. “We’ve been working hard to formulate the perfect afternoon pick-me-up,” the press release says, “and really, what’s better than a bag full of bacon?”
I'm going to treat that as rhetorical. But most meat eaters would agree that bacon is indeed very, very good, and that is why it has exceeded meat's usual parameters. We have the Vosges chocolate bacon bar and Bakon vodka, bacon-scented soap and bacon-flavored condoms. Recipe writers looking for clicks incorporate the ingredient in desserts and wrap it around vegetables. As national poet Nick Jonas sings in his lyrically confusing breakup anthem named for the crispy pork strips, "Aw [expletive], throw some bacon on it."
Or, as national poet Lizzo sings in her lyrically delicious self-love song "Juice," "No, I'm not a snack at all. Look, baby, I'm the whole damn meal." Bacon doesn't need a vehicle. It can be its own vehicle, thank you very much. At Alinea, one of the nation's most-acclaimed fine-dining restaurants, chef Grant Achatz served a course of a single strip of bacon suspended from a wire on an elegant stand. The world picked up this baton and ran with it: One can now eat something called "clothesline smoked bacon" with maple and black pepper at Banners Kitchen & Tap downtown, for example. There are some steps between experimental tasting menus in Chicago and a Boston sports bar, but this is how fine dining either trickles down or infects the culture, however you see it. It ends in a white paper bag in Dunkin's across the country, clocking in at $2.49 and 190 calories.
Dunkin’ is keenly aware of such trajectories. “The brand is really always committed to thinking innovatively about how we can excite customers and be true to what our brand really stands for,” says Mike Brazis, director of global culinary innovation at Dunkin’ Brands, which also just introduced a trendy matcha latte. The company had a hit with a limited-time-only breakfast sandwich incorporating sweet and peppery seasoned bacon. And consumers are embracing low-carb, high-fat ways of eating such as the ketogenic diet, a market forecast to reach more than $12 billion globally in 2024, according to a report by research firm Mordor Intelligence. (Due to its sugar content, Snackin’ Bacon is not keto-friendly, however.)
"There's this cult of bacon we saw as an opportunity," Brazis says. "We saw it in white tablecloths, we saw it in fast-casual. We've got a great product. Why wouldn't we want to test it?"
Interest in plant-based foods is on the rise, too. According to Nielsen, 15 percent of food and beverage sales came from products supporting a plant-based diet in 2019, up 1.7 percent from the year prior. Over the summer, Dunkin’ partnered with Beyond Meat, a company specializing in plant-based meat alternatives, introducing a breakfast sandwich made with meatless sausage. Whatever karmic points Dunkin’ scored there may have been canceled by the addition of Snackin’ Bacon.
“It’s a funny rejoinder to some of the ambitions of [Impossible Foods CEO] Pat Brown and other architects of plant-based meat,” says Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft, author of the 2019 book “Meat Planet: Artificial Flesh and the Future of Food.” “They’re market opportunists, self-avowedly; it’s not insulting them to say that they think the free market is a tool for creating social change. But the lesson they should draw from this is when a company agrees to serve their food, it’s not signing a waiver that says ‘we will forever turn our back on in vivo meat.’”
If we hope to save our planet from our own destructively carnivorous tendencies, plant-based meat substitutes can do only so much. On the other hand, there is still a glaring absence in the market. “In the lab grown-meat chat rooms online, the fantasy of lab-grown bacon comes up really fast,” Wurgaft says.
In the meantime, meat eaters have Snackin' Bacon. In a photo provided by Dunkin', the strips protrude from a pristine paper bag, crisp and wavy, with the ebullience of a squad of cheerleaders who are cheering about bacon. They look perfect. They are bacon at its best.
And of course I am going to try them.
What does one wear to go out for only bacon and nothing but bacon? It seems to demand a special outfit of shame. Or pride? I can't decide, so I don't bother changing for the occasion.
This early in the rollout, Snackin' Bacon can be hard to find in the wild. On my first attempt, the incredibly nice guy behind the counter can't figure out what to punch in. "But you came all this way! Here, let me just make you some." He hands me over a bag of bacon that is very hot and very greasy but isn't Snackin' Bacon: It's plain, no sugar or pepper.
On my next try, I find it. When I order, the woman at the register lets out one uncontrollable gasp of laughter. Then she hands it over.
The thing about bacon is that its excellence is extremely dependent on how it is prepared. Crisp, well-cooked, piping-hot strips of bacon, like the ones pictured in Dunkin’s photo, are a thing of beauty. Pieces of cooling, fatty, limp bacon, clumped together like a nest of baby vipers, are not. My particular servin’ of Snackin’ Bacon is the latter, the bag gone translucent with grease.
The flavor profile, however, is compelling. It reminds me of beef jerky, chewy, smoky, and sweet, with a satisfying and substantial kick. My fingers are coated in sugar, pepper, and fat. It’s almost impossible not to lick them. This may not be the ideal snack for coronavirus season. Dial back the sweetness and Snackin’ Bacon would taste great. It’s the equivalent of a Dunkin’ coffee regular, coffee for people who don’t like coffee, served with so much sugar you can barely taste the brew in which it is suspended.
"Would you consider a bagful of bacon a snack?," I text a friend who eats a keto diet.
"Lol no," she replies.
Me neither. I know what I have to do. I’m on my way to KFC, which just introduced a sandwich of fried chicken between two vanilla-glazed doughnuts. It’s only missing one thing.
Devra First can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.