by Ari Weinzweig
Canadian Bacon is a pickled eye of pork loin, and, seemingly has its origins in the work of Wiltshiremen who came over to Canada. Compared to American bacon, it’s: a) a different cut (a lot leaner than American bacons, which are made from pork belly), b) cured in a wet brine, c) not smoked, d) rolled in cornmeal.
While the latter is fairly common with stuff like catfish, best I can tell, this makes it completely unique in the bacon world. From what I’ve learned over the years, the rolling wasn’t any big brilliant culinary thing, but really just a practical solution to a practical issue. “In the ‘olden’ days, you would go to the grocery store, ask the meat counter for your “Peameal Bacon,” I learned from Canadian born, now living in the U.S bacon importer, Ken Haviland. “They would grab a hook,” he told me, “pull a loin out of the brine solution, roll it in cornmeal, package it up, weigh it, sticker it and hand it to you.”
With that in mind though, I’ve always wondered about the origin of the “peameal” name; the question came up because when I really thought about I realized that it was a bit odd since all the Canadian bacon I’ve ever come across was rolled, as I said above, in cornmeal I’ve never understood why the stuff isn’t called “cornmeal bacon.” The answer, apparently, is that Canadian bacon was originally rolled in ground dried yellow peas, but later that was changed to the more readily available cornmeal.
Folks from Canada, and in some case from areas up near the border, are pretty darned passionate about this bacon. As is true for grits in the South, peameal bacon can carry big emotional attachments up north. Just asking about peameal evoked a whole lot of info, emotion and some good culinary story telling. Seriously, all you have to do is talk to a couple Canadians (or close-to-Canada Americans like Ms. Stevens) and you start to realize that peameal bacon sandwiches, while pretty much unknown down here, are about the equivalent up there of pastrami in Manhattan or cheese steaks in Philadelphia. Iconic is starting to sound like understatement. I’d ask all my Canadian relatives about it but of course they all keep kosher so Canadian bacon is just something they’d seen signs for in the market when they went shopping.
Molly Stevens, author of the award-winning book Braising is one of the latter. She grew up in Buffalo, close enough to Canada that Canadian bacon and hockey were both a big deal for her family. “In my family,” she started out, “for some reason, it’s long been one of those ritual foods.” For me, Canadian bacon is just one more option on a long list cured pork options, and, in honesty, not in my top two or three. But for Molly (and I’m sure many others like her), is as much about emotion and memorable family meals as it is about the pork.
“Peameal for us symbolizes summer at the beach in Canada, and all that goes with it; long days, no school, and so on,” she said. “I remember one year when an in-law sliced it too thinly, and we were all silently horrified. Of course, we were polite enough but each made a mental note to watch the next time that THAT brother-in-law went anywhere near the peameal. Then there was the other time when someone bought the pre-sliced stuff. Again, horror.” This is a much mellower way of staking claim to the way cured pork (or any food really that has this sort of sub surface significance to it) is handled, but it reminds me of the Jamon Serrano producer in Spain who once told with a semi-serious smile that he’d have to kill me if I cut off the fat on the ham. (Here in the US we fear the fat, there they know it as the best part!)
So, assuming that incompetent in-laws have been kept safely out of the way, how’s Canadian bacon slicing supposed to work? “The deal is, you get a big hunk—anywhere from 2 to 3 pounds, slice it not too thin, not too thick. Grill it over medium heat so it stays just ever so pink in the center and the cornmeal coating and external fat grills up crispy. Then you serve it on a soft sort of Kaiser roll—the best of them have a thin crispy crust and soft absorbent interior. You slather on Hellman’s mayonnaise, add lettuce and slices of summer ripe tomato. Depending on the size of the roll, who sliced the peameal, your pigginess, etc. you may stack two slices, or maybe one. Oh, and a few thin slices of orange Canadian cheddar is acceptable too.”
As with so many foods that we grew up on, the importance of this one goes way beyond the actual sandwich itself, which is in essence “just” (I’m wary of even putting that word in here) a Canadian bacon BLT. “Even the thought of this sandwich,” she explained, “brings a rush of familial memories and ties me to my childhood in a deep way. And the first taste always thrills me. Even to this day, when my family calls from the beach, where they all still gather, and tell me that they’re having peameal, I feel a pang of nostalgia. Now the funny thing is that I’m sure there are other ways to prepare peameal, and I know I could figure out a recipe using really high grade pork and brining it myself, and I could get a quality roll to serve it on, and use only really good cheese, and homemade mayo, but you know what, I don’t really want to. For the one or two peameal sandwiches I eat a year, I love that they are just what they’ve always been.”
I’m not the world’s expert on this stuff but word is that there are still some very good versions available from various local butchers. (Happy to hear your suggestions if you have them.). To my experience, the best Canadian bacon in the States is the stuff that’s imported by the appropriately named Real Canadian Bacon Company, which is based not far from Ann Arbor, in the town of Troy, Michigan. It was started by the above-mentioned Ken Haviland, originally from an Ontario, but who went on to work for General Motors here in Michigan. While working here he grew increasingly frustrated that he couldn’t find the real Canadian bacon he’d grown up with—most of what’s available here in the U.S. is already cooked and sometimes smoked and not all what folks who love this stuff are seeking. I guess we really should refer to that as “American Canadian bacon;” by contrast what you get up north of the border is indeed, real Canadian bacon—needless to say, the taste and texture of the two are totally different.
With that in mind, Ken came to the entrepreneurial conclusion that he’d have to import his own. The RCBC offers the peameal both as a big chunk and pre-sliced. As per Molly’s memories, I’d recommend going with the chunk and cutting your own. Like her, I prefer it cut a bit thicker—you get a nicer mouth feel and the eating experience is, I think, more interesting. The flavor is mellow—a light refreshing summer local wine compared to the earthy, smoky well-aged intensity of say, the dry cured bacon from Allan Benton—the wine analogy, which now that I think about it, fits perfectly with Molly’s memories of beach eating. I’ve made up a fair few of the sandwiches just as she described them and they are, really, some very nice, refreshing, fun, summer eating. I’ve been cooking the bacon in a skillet but of course doing it on the grill as Molly mentioned above would be a good way to go. It’s best, I think, to have the bacon warm so it softens up the bread and all the accoutrements.