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Canadian Peameal Bacon

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.

7 Comments »

  1. Kara Kaufmann said,

    July 25, 2008 @ 7:43 am

    Hi!

    I just wanted to say how fantastic it was to read the peameal bacon article this morning! Ever since I moved to Ann Arbor last September I have been devoted to tracking down peameal bacon locally, and sadly enough, I can never find it. Between my British husband and my Canadian self, we crave, crave, crave it all the time, and miss our Saturday mornings with tons of slices of bacon, ketchup and fried white bread sandwiches (doesn’t get any unhealthier…)

    I just checked out the Real Canadian Bacon company in Troy, which is a great start, and if you happen to get any feedback from others about local butcher shops that carry it, let me know! And if Zingerman’s ever began carrying it, I just may be in heaven (!)

    I’m elated!

    Kara

  2. marsha meier said,

    September 1, 2008 @ 4:46 pm

    as a native Torontonian,now living in Auburn Hills Mi, i cannot wait for someone to come visit me and bring my peameal bacon and Coffee crisp candy bars! and now to find this company the Real Canadian bacon company in Troy,it is right around the corner from me, i am in heaven!

    can’t wait to get an order, slice it, fry in the pan and put on white bread, oh the mouth is watering right now!

  3. betsy said,

    September 29, 2008 @ 2:51 pm

    nice history of peameal bacon ! i have 30 lbs in my freezer right now waiting to be thawed, put in an aluminum foil throw away pans and smothered in marmalade . Add 1/4 inch of tonic water or ginger ale and bake - serve w mac n cheese, a hearty fall salad and absolutely slice it THICK ! This is a command performance club dinner and sorry Ken from RCBC - where i ordered it with wonderful service last year- i was in Crystal Beach,Ontario this summer (Buffalo NY vacation land) and went to the plant itself to pick up the goods :)

  4. Mary Ann said,

    October 4, 2008 @ 4:08 pm

    Great article on peameal bacon. I can’t say enough about it. I’m a transplanted Iowa girl, brought up on pork and introduced to peameal bacon by my Canadian husband. I’ve eaten it for breakfast, lunch, appetizers and dinner. It is outstanding grilled. We serve it whenever our relatives from “out west” (Minnesota, Iowa, Arizona) are here and they love it. It’s a little more subtle flavor than ham and has great texture.

    There’s another place to get it in the states,too. My husband’s company, Gord’s Great Canadian Bacon in Ferndale (www.gordsbacon.com) also imports it- low salt and low fat, with the same tremendous flavor.

  5. Francesca said,

    October 20, 2008 @ 4:36 pm

    I knew about this canadian bacon just this morning. In this week I’ll go to buy it SLURP :-P

  6. Maria said,

    December 25, 2008 @ 9:57 am

    For Christmas we were given a peameal bacon fresh from Canada. The family did not know the recipe for preparing the curing of the pork loin. Is there anyone that can give me a recipe for curing the por loin for canadian bacon?

  7. Mike Brautigan said,

    January 17, 2009 @ 12:10 pm

    For those of you who are not aware, Hiller’s Markets in the western suberbs of Detroit(Northville, Plymouth,etc) make their own pea meal bacon and it is great!

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