Bacon on Salad: Michael Bacon’s Quest for the Perfect Caesar Salad
I’m sitting in the main performance area of The Birchmere, one of America’s most renowned folk music venues, and the room is filled to capacity. With the exception of the table that I share with Betsy, Michael Bacon’s wife, and some strangers who have disregarded the “Table Reserved” sign at a late enough point that it is not worth ejecting them, every one of the 500 seats is filled, and the room is absolutely, unequivocally paying attention. Soon, Michael and his more famous brother, Kevin, will take the stage, and the Bacon Brothers will put on a show that a great number of people have paid a good amount of money to see.
I am at this concert as Michael’s guest because of an Oscar Mayer marketing campaign I saw roughly a week earlier. This campaign, titled “The Unsung Bacon Story Presented by Oscar Mayer Turkey Bacon,” at one point has Michael, dressed as his childhood alter-ego “Rex Frasier” (who appears to be a cross between Indiana Jones and John Waters, complete with pencil-moustache), stating “I make the best Caesar salad.” As far as I am concerned, the campaign is a success. It is funny without being mocking, and it highlights Michael’s status as the less famous Bacon brother without being cruel. It is a simple fact that Michael is less famous than his brother, Kevin, but it is also a fact that he is a tremendously gifted musician, a successful businessman, and also, something I was unfamiliar with until the ad campaign, most likely the best craftsman of Caesar salad in the world.
The morning after the concert I had an opportunity to sit down with Michael to discuss life on the road, his experiences as a musician, and (with great seriousness) Caesar salad. “When I was living in Philly and I was in that group [one of his first bands] I was 19, 20 years old, I had a girlfriend and we used to go to this Italian restaurant that did Caesar salad by the table, and it was…amazing. I mean, I still think about it. So I would read books and recipe books and stuff, and try to recreate it at home, and I never could do it. We would go back to the restaurant and stare. So finally the restaurant closed and I moved to Nashville and when it was still open I wrote to the restaurant and said, ‘Please, just give me your recipe,’ and I never heard. So from that point on, and now it’s how many years later – 35 years later – I’m still working on it.”
It might seem like a funny thing to try to perfect, but when I looked at this objectively I found myself casting aside my doubts and judgments. I probably have a Caesar salad at least once every two weeks, more consistently than most other dishes I eat, and it is a truly ubiquitous dish both in America and overseas. Michael, in addition to all his other accomplishments (Emmy-winner, composer, player of 12 instruments, husband, father, and, full disclosure, also a family friend of many years, although I don’t know if I would list that as an accomplishment), is probably Caesar salad’s greatest champion, and also its greatest critic.
“I’m still trying to perfect it, trying little things. Because Caesar salad, it’s gotta be completely balanced. You have all these really pretty intense flavors, lemon, anchovies, cheese, and you don’t want to have any one overcome another one, and then the texture has to be right. It’s been a life’s work, my Caesar salad recipe. I’ve never written it down because I just have a really good feel for it…[yet] all these years I’ve never gotten to the level of that restaurant — and I’ve never had it in any restaurant, even ones where they make it at the table, where it’s as good as that was.”
Seizing an opportunity, I asked Michael, “Do you think that maybe in the pursuit of trying to reach this, you have elevated it to a point where you can never get to it?”
Michael paused almost imperceptibly and replied, “No!” to which we both laughed. I said to Michael, “Well, now you’ve got me thinking about [The Beach Boys’] Brian Wilson, right, and his pursuit for perfection, for perfect harmony, but in salad.” Michael (humoring me) responded, “Yes. In harmony I will not get there, but I will get there with the salad. It was just so funny, because with the turkey bacon they [Oscar Mayer] just picked up on that, and they made it really…with all these goofy things about me telling them that I make the best Caesar salad in the world, which is probably true! I mean, I don’t think there’s ever been a Caesar salad cook-off or anything like that, but whenever I go to a fancy restaurant I order it to see if they’re on to something, and they never are. I blow them all away, always.”
According to legend, The Beach Boy’s Brian Wilson suffered a significant nervous breakdown as a result of his search for perfection in musical harmony. This is not a concern for Michael, who remains a curious, inventive musician while still retaining a firm grip on reality. However, while Michael may not have lost his mind in the quest for greatness, there is no doubting his dedication to both the art of music and the crafting of the ultimate salad. Michael’s quest for the Caesar salad of his youth presents itself as a vehicle for his time as a musician. At the very end of our time together I said to Michael, “You know, it does sound like you’re talking about the band, or that you’re talking about music when you described the salad. All these components coming together…”
“Exactly. That’s exactly it… It’s a metaphor for my musical life.” As with music, and the attempt to balance boldness and individuality against harmony, so with Caesar salad.
First published October 2014