Friday, June 5, 2009

Grandpa Johnson, the Inventor of Fat-Free Bacon

Bacon lovers in the audience may find the title too good to be true, but fat-free bacon was invented, and it was my grandpa who did it.

I've never found a good excuse for telling this story in writing (though my good friend Jay Lake's occasional bacon references have tempted me), and, as you'll find out soon enough, it deserves a better story teller than I, but since nobody else is ever likely to record these facts, the duty seems to fall to me.

My Grandpa Johnson died when I was three, so I was told, and thus memory provides me not a single recollection of him. But I remember being told at least two things about him. The first was that he wrote a book, and one that was published, no less. Even as a kid that amazed me and made him stand-out from all the other members of my family as the only person who'd ever done anything that really mattered. I mean, a book. He wrote one. Someone published it. He added something very concrete to the sum of human knowledge, for it was a volume of facts, rather than fiction. That has never ceased to impress me. (Had it been fiction, I'd still have been impressed that he'd added something concrete to human culture, but then the rest of this story probably never would have happened.)

The book was Animals in the American Economy by John A. Sims & Leslie E. Johnson. (ISBN 0813802458.) I was told as a kid that the co-author was the man who'd finished the book after grandpa had unexpectedly dropped dead. So, if there was ever a promotional tour, sadly, grandpa missed it, along with any chance of a shot at the best seller list. I am assured that life is not fair, albeit usually by the people who are making it unfair, but this must surely constitute some independent proof of that assertion.

The second thing I was told about Grandpa Johnson was that he'd inventend fat-free bacon.

If it should seem surprising that he, of all the grandpas that the world has ever created, should choose that particular book to write, or that he should be the one to set out to create fat-free bacon, it may be helpful to know that he was Head of Animal Husbandry at South Dakota State College, and, ultimately, Head of the Department of Animal Husbandry at Iowa State College. Because of his latter affiliation, I was dumbstruck many years ago when I searched for him on the Internet and found that he had a web page – dead for 25 years when the Web was invented, but he still had a web page. Neat trick. For a man who could pull that off, presumably a book was no problem. Fat-free bacon was another story, however.

The invention of fat-free bacon was handed-down in family legend, and if the legend was ever rich in detail, those details didn't manage to penetrate my young skull. Nonetheless, I choose to believe in the invention, (1) because it's a good story, and (2) because his resumé says he was just the man for the job. Which is to say that he was a man with both the means and the inclination to breed swine. And none of that "let's just mate a few pigs to get a few more" sort of swine breeding, but controlled breeding, with the resources of a state college at his disposal. Which state college that was, will have to remain a matter for historians.

Historians aside, I was assured by family legend that grandpa bred generation after generation of swine in his determined quest for the culinary holy grail of fat-free bacon. And after years of breeding just the right sow and whatever-they-call-a-male-pig, his program of old-school genetic engineering was at last a success. He had one of the resulting pigs slaughtered and the hog belly cured. Once that was done, he presumably went home proudly to present the slab of bacon to his good wife for cutting and cooking. The family gathered—surely this is the sort of thing for which families cannot help but gather—and, I imagine, sat anxiously around the dinner table listening to it cook, and hungering for the first taste of the bacon to which human civilization had been leading. Soon, I expect, a plate of the sizzling miracle meat was placed before them on the dinner table and quickly portioned-out to everyone.

And that's pretty much where this combination of speculation and family legend ends. For, by all accounts, the bacon was terrible; unpleasantly dry for a start, and I recall nothing good being said about the flavor.*

A technical success, but a practical failure, the bacon project was abandoned there and then, I was told. And so it was that that thread in the weave of the 13,000 year history of the pig was abruptly cut, and its dangling end vanished into the mists of time. Until now.

Know ye, History, that Leslie Eckroat Johnson invented fat-free bacon, and tremble.

* How this bacon differed from back bacon, which is naturally relatively low in fat, yet tasty, I do not know. Perhaps it was the difference between being "low in fat" and truly "fat free" that was crucial.


  1. Alison in Indiana6:39 AM CDT

    I call a male pig a boar. But Wikipedia gives alls sorts of kinds of male pig terminology:
    *Boar or hog, male pig of breeding age.
    *Barrow, male pig castrated before puberty.
    *Stag, male pig castrated later in life, (that is, an old boar after castration).
    Gives the term "stag party" a whole new feel, doesn't it?

  2. Susan Gatlin7:38 AM CDT

    OMG, how have you kept this wonderful history with embelishhments and all, hidden from your friends all these years? You are famous,if only being his grandson. I want your autograph and is the book still in print?

  3. Anonymous7:23 AM CDT

    Seriously... Where's the bacon? Fat free bacon is like... Finding the fountain of youth, el Dorado, and prince charming, all in the same day!

  4. Since writing this blog post, I've tried to obtain associated information from the relevant department of Iowa State at Ames. Some misunderstandings aside, the folks there did what they could to find anyone still around who might remember those experiments (a grad student, now a very senior or retired professor, for instance), but came up with nothing. They put me in touch with the department's official unofficial historian, but if he ever got back to me, I either missed it, or have somehow forgotten about it (which certainly wouldn't have happened if it contained any useful information). So, I can't lay my hands on evidence either supporting or contradicting this family story. All I can say is that Grandpa Johnson had the skills, the facilities, and authority to do exactly what the family legend alleges. Whether the legend can be proved at this late date, and details filled-in, looks as though it will depend on the right person stumbling onto this post, if any of the right people are still alive (or left relevant records that someone is still aware of).