A Better Way with Bacon: a Meditation on Creative Synthesis

Bacon is one of my favorite foods, even if it shares its name with a second-rate philosopher. For years I made bacon the old-fashioned way in a skillet on the range-top. The results were delicious—nice crispy bacon with tons of flavor—but the time it took to pan-fry a thick-cut strip (a package can easily take ½ hour) and the subsequent cleanup were serious impediments (greasy pan and backsplash) to making this tasty treat. So coveting the sweet delicious taste without the mess, I recently went in search of a better way with bacon.

I first made the mistake of reading a “click-bait” bacon article on Yahoo! that insisted the best way with bacon was in a hot oven with bacon strips laid across a rack set inside a lipped cookie sheet. The results were disastrous. The bacon was not carmelized (insufficient Maillard reaction) and the cookie sheet contained a disgusting pool of grease—not to mention that cleaning a greasy cooling rack is no fun.

Then I began to think about the “tricks” I already knew. For years, whenever I craved a homemade BLT, I have turned to the trusty microwave. On a plate lined with paper towels, I microwaved a few slices of bacon that I also covered with paper towels. My three girls have all turned about to be bacon lovers, so I’ve increasingly used this method to make a quick treat for them. Your bacon cooks quickly with acceptable results, but I still don’t consider microwave bacon to be the equal of stove-top. The cleanup is easier, since most of the grease collects in the paper towels, but the bacon can dry out, and I miss the browning and flavor of the stove-top method.

I was still mulling over my bacon quandary when my wife reminded me that we were having a special a breakfast-for-dinner night. In our family we have pancakes for dinner on Shrove Tuesday (i.e. Mardi Gras). My wife was in charge of the pancakes and I, as usual, was on bacon duty. But instead of opting for either the stove-top or the microwave, I took a moment to consider. What was I really after? Taste? Texture? Less mess? All of the above. Could I come up with a way to achieve all of that?

And then I had a sudden realization: what if I par-baked the bacon in the microwave and then transferred it to the hot skillet? I recently had followed my wife’s instructions for baked potatoes. “After scrubbing them, microwave them for five minutes and then put them in the oven. They’ll cook much faster,” she told me over the phone. Why not adopt that same approach for bacon? I set my microwave to one minute per strip (thick-cut) on high—enough to render much of the fat but not completely bake my favorite meat candy. Then I moved the bacon to the skillet and finished the bacon in just a few minutes. The results were very close to baking exclusively on the stove-top. The bacon was crispy and brown but not dried out. I had found a better way with bacon! I was the hero of Shrove Tuesday. Just ask my kids.

As I thought over my better way of making bacon, I realized that—trivial as it may be—this episode illustrates an important truth about human creative endeavors. Most good ideas, like my serendipitous Shrove Tuesday bacon discovery, are the result of combining vectors of previous thoughts. We can labor fruitlessly to come up with some grand new idea, but often the “new” idea is no more than a creative synthesis of two existing ideas.

As a professor, I am always looking for ways to explain abstract concepts to my students. I notice that students—and their professors for that matter—often struggle to find “original” arguments for their scholarly work. I hope that this tasty illustration will help my students understand one of the ways that truly insightful original scholarship can come about. I plan to use my bacon discovery to show them that while research is necessary and useful, you might not need to slog through hundreds of pages of dry, boring academic prose. Instead, you might just need to bring together ideas that have not been previously synthesized. This creative synthesis is sometimes slow to mature but it is always intrinsically rewarding once achieved. Especially if it involves bacon.

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