Bacon Unwrapped

Monday, June 30, 2008

Easy Mac with Bacon

In early June I put out an APB to family and friends so they could help me find Easy Mac with Bacon. I had searched high and low at numerous grocery stores for several weeks and still hadn't been able to find a container.

Within 2 days of asking my family and friends to help me find this product, I called off the search because a truck stop in Mt. Vernon, Illinois came to the rescue. I stopped for gas and batteries, and left with Easy Mac with Bacon. I was practically skipping with joy to the car.

But unfortunately my joy quickly turned to disappointment. I realize Easy Mac isn't the highest quality macaroni and cheese one can consume, but this was pretty disappointing. The bacon bits were barely detectable (the black arrows in the picture point to the bacon bits). It was basically like taking store-bought bacon bits and shaking the final dust from the bottom of the bag into the macaroni and cheese. And the flavor of the bacon was bleh.

I'm not embarrassed to admit that I actually like Kraft macaroni and cheese out of the box, so a better option would be to cook and crumble your own bacon into some macaroni and cheese rather than going the Easy Mac route.

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Sunday, June 29, 2008

Bacon Nation Unwrapped: Breakfast of Champions

Recent news from the Bacon Nation...


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Friday, June 27, 2008

The End of the Bacon Road

After 3540 miles, my bacon tour of America has finally come to an end. So I want to take a moment and thank everyone who hosted me on my trip.

June Scott at Scott Country Hams
Nancy Newsom Mahaffey at Newsom's Country Hams
Ronny and Beth Drennan at Broadbent Country Hams
Mike Sloan at Swiss Meats
Jeff Bruning at the High Life Lounge
Brooks Reynolds
Herb and Kathy Eckhouse at La Quercia
Steve and Kathy Wesley
Thielen Meats
And all of the friends and family who let me stay with them along the way.

Every single person I met with was incredibly gracious with their time and knowledge. It was a truly enjoyable and educational two weeks.

It is worth mentioning that there are a couple businesses who declined an interview, and the reason usually had to do with them being too skeptical of what a blogger might write about their business. Given some of the coverage that pork and bacon producers have received in recent years - some of it earned, some of it not - I can't really blame them for erring on the cautious side. Whether or not you agree with what some of these companies do for a living, I personally think it's unfortunate that the food industry has become so highly politicized in recent years that the debate on issues has reached a point where certain players in the industry are hesitant to talk to anyone.

But if I've learned anything during my tour, it's that there are a lot of real, honest, good people in this industry who are producing products with a tremendous amount of love and care (and they all seem to be having a lot of fun doing it). And I'm grateful to everyone who took the time to meet with me.


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Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Thielen Meats "Famous Bacon"

In the small town of Pierz, Minnesota, which is located an hour north of St. Cloud and two hours from Minneapolis, there is a butcher with a big reputation.

Thielen Meats has been in the business of custom butchery and bacon curing for over 80 years. Minnesotans will drive many miles to visit the store. But in recent years, thanks largely to some national media coverage, Thielen's has also developed a following from outside Minnesota.

Thielen Meats was my last smokehouse stop on my cross country bacon tour of America. When you pull up to the store and step out of your car, you are instantly greeted with the smell of smoking meat before you even enter the store. For the most part, the store looks like any standard butcher shop in the United States. But the real magic happens in the back where there are three very large custom built smoking rooms (hence the reason that practically the entire city block smells like bacon). Thielen Meats smokes their bacon with a special blend of three hardwoods that is still a family secret. I was able to sample a few strips in the breakroom before taking the tour - even though it was early in the day and I had already eaten bacon for breakfast just an hour before, I was still able to find room for the Thielen bacon because it was just that delicious.


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Monday, June 23, 2008

Manny's Steakhouse Bacon Appetizer

A couple days ago I wrote about the bacon appetizer at Psycho Suzi's in Minneapolis, MN. Psycho Suzi's is a very casual establishment - their bacon appetizer is served on toothpicks.

On the other end of the bacon appetizer spectrum is the bacon at Manny's Steakhouse which is located just a few miles across town from Psycho Suzi's. Both establishments use applewood smoked bacon, but that's about where the similarities end. Manny's is a traditional upscale steakhouse, so I guess you could say their bacon appetizer has slightly more "class" (ie a higher price tag). For $11.95 you get two thick - and I mean THICK - slices of grilled applewood smoked bacon. The meat is on the crispy side and the velvety strips of fat are incredibly rich - I barely made it through one of the slices myself. If you find yourself at Manny's (they also have a Miami location), I suggest sharing one of these appetizers with a friend - particularly if you're planning to chase it with a steak.


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Sunday, June 22, 2008

Bacon Nation Unwrapped: Summer Vacation Ideas

Recent news from the Bacon Nation...

  • Mad Meat Genius celebrates the 100th birthday of Milk Bones by making Bacon Dog Biscuits for his hounds.
  • A 10 year old Oregon boy with leukemia is recognized for his "Bacon Boy" superhero cartoon (via reader Teena)
  • Flights to England are expensive this summer because of fuel prices. So instead of going to visit the real Stonehenge, just stay at home and make a Baconhenge instead (via reader Jordan)
  • I tried bacon toothpicks for the first time the other day and almost gagged, so I think I'll be passing on bacon floss (numerous readers emailed me about this one -thanks everyone!)
  • Wild hog hunting in Texas goes to a whole new level.


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Saturday, June 21, 2008

Screw Salmonella, BLT Season is Here!

The beginning of summer traditionally marks that time of year when we start to crave BLT sandwiches made with fresh ingredients.

So ignoring Tomatogate 2008, today I threw caution into the wind and made a BLT for lunch. But not only did my BLT have tomatoes on it (vine ripened - supposedly safe - if not Joe Albertson will be hearing from me), but I also used sun-dried tomato bacon from Broadbent Hams. How do ya like that, Mr. Salmonella?

This was my first time tasting Broadbent's sun-dried tomato bacon - I was given a sample to take home when I visited their facility a couple weeks ago. There are two important things about frying this kind of bacon so that you don't burn off the flavor: LOW and SLOW. The sun-dried tomato flavor is very subtle, but it does add a slight tangy flavor to the bacon.

The BLT - always great way to kick off the summer season.

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Friday, June 20, 2008

Pyscho Suzi's Bacon Appetizer

I have a strange love of tiki bars. As kitschy and cheesy as they are sometimes, tiki bars tend to have a quirkier personality than your average neighborhood watering hole that makes the experience of drinking there that much more fun. Some might say I'm a bit quirky myself, so I guess the attraction is natural.

When I heard about a bar in Minneapolis called Psycho Suzi's that not only has a tiki theme, but also has a particular affinity for bacon, I promptly added it as a stop on my cross country bacon tour.

Psycho Suzi's menu features an appetizer called "Plate o' Bacon." For $5.95, you get seven thick applewood slices of bacon that are curled up and skewered with a toothpick and served on a bed of lettuce (mmm...and nutritious, too!). The bacon is also featured during happy hour at a discounted price.

Also, check out this note written on a stall in the women's bathroom. I wonder how that got there...


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Wednesday, June 18, 2008

La Quercia

Many of the smokehouses I've visited over the last couple weeks have received numerous awards and accolades over the years for their products. They truly are some of the best smokehouses in the country. I love hearing stories about how their businesses started and grew into the successful operations they are today. And the one thing they all seem to have in common is that they started small with the singular goal of providing a top quality product to the market, and they have stuck to that goal over the years regardless of how their business has grown.

La Quercia in Des Moines, Iowa is one such purveyor of cured meats following this philosophy. But their approach to cured meats is different than the country cure operations I've visited over the last couple weeks. La Quercia specializes in Italian cured meats in the form of prosciutto, pancetta, lardo, culaccia, speck and guanciale. But like the country smokehouses, La Quercia focuses on very simple curing concepts that have been around for hundreds of years with the goal of delivering the highest quality product to the market.

Owner Herb Eckhouse gave me a tour of their facility on a Friday afternoon. One of my favorite stories was about how they came up with the name of their business.

"La Quercia means the Oak in Italian. The Oak is a traditional symbol of the province of Parma (where we lived) and, through its acorns, has been associated with the history of prosciutto for 500 years. It is also the state tree of Iowa. The name unites Iowa, Parma, and prosciutto, and is a symbol of patience, persistence, integrity and beauty -- values which guide us."

La Quercia is a little over three years old. Their mission is to make artisinal salumi using traditional dry cure methods. They don't use any nitrates, nitrites or vegetable derived substances during their curing process. La Quercia is best known for their prosciutto, which I had the opportunity to sample and it was fantastic. But my main reason for visiting La Quercia was to learn more about their pancetta and guanciale.

Pancetta, like bacon, is made from pork belly. The main difference between American-style bacon and Italian-style pancetta is that pancetta isn't smoked. It is also cured longer and can be eaten uncooked, although many people like to cook with it, particularly in pasta sauces. La Quercia uses pork bellies from organic Berkshire hogs. The curing ingredients include sea salt and organic spices that give the meat a nice fragrance and flavor. La Quercia's pancetta is the first and only organic pancetta available in the United States.

Guanciale, which comes from the pig's jowl, is cured the same way the pancetta is cured. Guanciale is commonly used for cooking to flavor a dish - it's isn't as common to eat guanciale on its own.

In its short lifetime, La Quercia has received positive reviews from many well respected sources including Robert Parker and Ed Levine, and last year they were named Food Artisans of the Year by Bon Appetit Magazine. La Quercia products can also be found in numerous top restaurants around the country.

Click here to learn more about their products and to place an order.


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Monday, June 16, 2008

High Life Lounge

Over a year ago I read an article in a magazine about bacon wrapped tater tots at the High Life Lounge in Des Moines, Iowa. Then I experimented with making my own version of bacon wrapped tater tots using wild boar bacon. The blog entry I wrote about it is the most visited item on my blog to date. It seems that a lot of people are as infatuated as I am by this simple but incredibly delicious concept.

So when I started planning my cross country drive, there was no question that the High Life Lounge would be on my list of places to stop.

I rolled into the High Life Lounge on a Thursday evening after 8+ hours of driving. I was tired and in serious need of a cocktail and food. So it was a most welcome greeting when I saddled up to the bar next to Lounge co-owner Jeff Bruning and was served a Miller High Life and bacon wrapped tots within moments of arriving. Also joining us was Brooks Reynolds, the mastermind behind the Blue Ribbon Bacon Festival that was held at the Lounge earlier this year.

The article I read last year about the High Life Lounge's bacon tots failed to mention that they also slide a small slice of hot pepper next to the tot before wrapping it in the bacon. This adds a whole different dimension to the experience that was quite appetizing and gives the tots a very different flavor than I was familiar with from my own experimentation.

Over a couple beers and the tots, Jeff and Brooks regaled me with stories from the Blue Ribbon Bacon Festival which, unfortunately, I was not able to attend this year. But it's definitely on my schedule for next year. The High Life Lounge rocks it old skool, which is my favorite kind of bar. And you just can't beat an entire day centered around consuming as much bacon as possible. So I eagerly look forward to spending March 1, 2009 in Des Moines.


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Sunday, June 15, 2008

Bacon Nation Unwrapped: Bringing Sexy Back

Recent news from the Bacon Nation...


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Friday, June 13, 2008

World Pork Expo

Part of the reason I timed my cross country drive to happen this time of year was so I could attend the annual meeting of pork producers and lovers that is the World Pork Expo in Des Moines, Iowa. I chose last Friday afternoon to wander around this event that is hosted by the National Pork Producers Council at the Iowa State Fairgrounds. My goal was to absorb everything there is to know about the industry that produces the Best Meat Ever.

And believe me, there is a lot of porcine goodness to absorb at this event starting the moment you enter the fairgrounds.

The scent of barbecue permeates the air. And as you walk down the midway, people offer you free pork. Within 5 minutes of passing through the gates, I had a sausage in my hand. I like to imagine this is what heaven might be like.

The Iowa Pork Producers also host a free barbecue for Expo attendees. The line during the lunch hour to get your free pork sandwich is long, but naturally people will always stand in line for pork as long as they need to.

If you've followed the national news over the last couple weeks, you've probably heard about some of the wicked thunderstorms Iowa has been experiencing. Flooding and tornadoes have been a serious problem. But fortunately mother nature took a break on Friday because the weather was absolutely beautiful. Whereas I had been sweating like a hog when I arrived in Iowa the day before because of the rain and humidity, on the day I was at the Pork Expo we enjoyed partly sunny 70 degree weather. So I sat on a park bench just a few steps from where I experienced my first pork chop on a stick back in 2005, and I enjoyed my pulled pork sandwich and pork cutlet sandwich courtesy of America's friendly pork producers.

After lunch I wandered through the exhibit hall where I saw the latest in hog farming technology ranging from pens to feeders to nutrition to reproduction to ventilation to cremation. I suddenly realized I basically know absolutely nothing about this industry despite having hosted this blog for the last three years, so it was a really good learning experience.

One of my favorite sights to see was a guy wearing a t-shirt that read "PETA: People for Eating Tasty Animals." Apparently there were some PETA protesters outside of the event the day before, so this guy decided to hold his own counter-protest. I love it.

Another feature at the Expo is the PigCasso Art Show. People submit pig-related artwork for this competition, and most of the pieces are also for sale. I've included a photo here of my favorite painting which suggests that a pig might be the best candidate in 2008 - I'm inclined to agree.

Due to the mostly technical and industry-oriented nature of the Expo, it's not exactly an event that the average man on the street might enjoy - except for the part about all the free pork products you can consume, of course. But for myself it was a truly enjoyable and educational afternoon learning all about the industry that is responsible for providing the meat that becomes the wonderful product we know as bacon.


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Thursday, June 12, 2008

Road Weary

Tony and I drove from St. Cloud, MN to Bozeman, MT yesterday (that's close to 1000 miles for those of you not familiar with flyover country). Needless to say, we're a bit exhausted today. So we'll be back tomorrow with another trip update. In the meantime, we're going to stop by the DMV this afternoon to pick up an honorary CDL...


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Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Crispy on the Outside Podcast

When I was in St. Louis last week, I spent 30 minutes on the phone with the guys from Crispy on the Outside recording a podcast about my cross-country trip, and generally all things bacon. Click here to listen to the interview. Enjoy!

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Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Burger's Smokehouse

Last Thursday I started the morning in St. Louis, Missouri and by noon I had driven to California.

California, Missouri, that is.

The Missouri version of California has just over 4000 residents - much smaller than the state by the same name. But what they lack in population they make up for with cured meats. Burger's Smokehouse produces approximately 750,000 hams, bacon, sausage and other specialty meats per year. But while the operation may be one of the largest country-style smokehouses in the United States, they still use the same traditional methods for curing their products that were used when the first Burger's smokehouse was built in the 1920s. Burger's was the first country cured meat company in the United States to go under Federal inspection in 1956. Since then they have continued to be an industry leader.

Burger's sells two kinds of bacon - country bacon and city bacon. The country bacon is cured using the same decades old sugar cure recipe that has been used to cure Burger's hams and bacon since the business started. The bacon is then smoked with hickory. The city bacon is wet cured using modern injection methods, and then the bacon is also smoked with hickory. The result is a milder, sweeter bacon.

Burger's also makes a bacon product I had never heard of before visiting their facility. Country Ham Bacon is apparently an old Kentucky custom where you take a country cured ham, bone the ends, and slice the ham thin like country style bacon.

A pre-cooked version of Burger's bacon is also available for purchase.

Visit the Burger's Smokehouse website for more information about all of their products and to place an order.


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Monday, June 09, 2008

Swiss Meats

Last Thursday, I spent part of the day at one of my favorite bacon producing companies in the United States. Swiss Meats is located in the small town of Hermann, Missouri, which is about 80 miles west of St. Louis. The surrounding scenery is quite beautiful - rolling green hills alternate between farmland and forests. But the best thing about this part of the country are the cured meats. The first time I tasted Swiss Meats bacon was through the Grateful Palate's Bacon of the Month Club. Their honey cured bacon instantly became a favorite of mine. So when I was planning my cross country drive and determining where I would stop along the way, Swiss Meats was at the top of the list.

Mike Sloan, the second generation owner and operator of Swiss Meats, gave me a tour of the facility which is a bit more technologically advanced than some of the bacon curing outfits I had visited during the previous two days.

As a side note, it's kind of interesting how my bacon tour of the country ended up coming together because I somehow managed to schedule my smokehouse visits in a way that allowed me to see a wide range of smokehouses starting with a small operation in a brick building in the backyard of the family home (Scott Hams) to an operation that had recently upgraded to a newer building but was still producing on a relatively small scale (Broadbent Hams) to a mid-sized operation using high-tech machinery (Swiss Meats). And then my next visit, which I'll tell you more about tomorrow, was to Burger's Smokehouse which is a much larger scale producer of country hams and bacon. I really didn't plan for my tour to progress that way, but that it did has made this entire learning process that much more interesting.

Anyways, back to Swiss Meats. Even though their approach to making bacon still focuses on traditional methods, they take advantage of state-of-the-art machinery to make the process much more efficient. The tumbler they use to cure the meat and add flavor was one of the coolest things I was able to see on the tour of their facility - they put the bacon, curing mixture and seasonings into a large steel tumbler that tenderizes, cures and flavors several hundred pounds of meat to perfection. Their smokehouse is also a large steel contraption that smokes the meat to exact specifications without the need to manually monitor the process.

All of this technology, along with Swiss Meats expertise when it comes to curing and smoking meat, are what make their bacon some of the best in the country. If you've never tasted Swiss Meats bacon before, I strongly urge you to visit their website and place an order. If you live in Missouri, go say hi and check out their store in person - they recently remodeled the store and it is quite nice with a large selection of meats to choose from. As I mentioned before, the honey bacon is my favorite, but their grand champion bacon and pepper bacon are also very popular. They also have a nice selection of sausages, including one made with bacon and beef. But regardless of what you order, I guarantee you won't be disappointed.


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Wednesday, June 04, 2008

My Bacon Mini Bar

Today my "Bacon Across America" adventure took me to Broadbent Country Hams in Kuttawa, Kentucky.

Broadbent Hams was founded in 1909 by the Broadbent family in Western Kentucky. In 1999, Ronny and Beth Drennan purchased the business from the Broadbent family. The Drennan's recently moved the business to a brand new facility in Kuttawa, but they continue to use the same methods that have been used to make Broadbent hams and bacon for almost 100 years.

When you walk in the front door of the Broadbent store, you are greeted with a rush of lovely smoky air - a scent I've become quite familiar with over the last 72 hours. The brand new facility is much more modern than some of the smaller, older operations I've visited over the last couple days. With spacious walk-in smoke rooms, cooling rooms, and freezers, there is plenty of room for the operation to expand and grow. But even with modern technology - including a smoking machine that makes the process of smoking the bacon much more efficient - the Broadbent approach to makin' bacon remains the same as it was when the business was founded.

Broadbent's most popular bacon products are hickory smoked bacon and pepper bacon. But they've experimented with some other flavors over the years - they generously gave me a package of their sun dried tomato bacon to take home. I can't wait to try some - it's a flavor I've never heard of. If you want to check out all the products Broadbent offers, click here to visit their website.

I'm currently in St. Louis for the night. The amount of bacon I'm now traveling with has started to create something of a logistical challenge. Fortunately I was able to make some room in the hotel mini bar to store the bacon overnight (I may have consumed a cocktail or two to create more space...the sacrifices I make for my bacon). Wouldn't it be great if this is what all hotel mini bars looked like?

Tomorrow I'm off to a couple smokehouses west of St. Louis, and then I head up to Iowa for a few days. More baconage to come...


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Tony's Cargo

St. Anthony poses with Tuesday's booty.


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Tuesday, June 03, 2008

1095 Days of Bacon

Today is the third anniversary of Bacon Unwrapped. Yep, that's right - I've been sharing my bacon obsession with the interweb for three years. I've written almost 500 entries. I've eaten A LOT of bacon and I am still miraculously Lipitor-free. So what better way to celebrate this event than spending it touring smokehouses in Western Kentucky, Bacon Capital of the World?

My first stop this morning was at Scott Hams in Greenville. Owner June Scott generously spent over an hour giving me a tour of the facility and telling me about the history of their operation. Scott Hams produces a nitrate-free country bacon that is cured in a traditional manner using brown sugar and salt. Their humble operation is located in a beautiful area blessed with rolling green hills and forests that give way to peaceful pastoral views. The love that goes into the production of their hams and bacon is obvious the second you walk in the door. My favorite part of the tour was being able to take a peek into the smoke room - I could still smell the delicious smoky scent hours after leaving the facility. While the Scott Hams store is located a bit off the beaten path for most people, fortunately you can order their products over the internet by clicking here. Their gift boxes are particularly popular around the holidays.

My second stop of the day was at Newsom's in Princeton. Newsom's has been run by three generations of the Newsom family and is currently under the tutelage of Nancy "The Ham Lady" Newsom Mahaffey. The family has been curing ham and bacon for commercial purposes since 1917. Newsom's hams are extremely popular and can be found in several top restaurants around the country.

I spent the better part of the afternoon with Nancy learning all about the history of Newsom's and their approach to curing hams and bacon. Nancy isn't curing any bacon at the moment, but I was able to look inside the room where the hams are hung to dry and was thoroughly impressed by the thousands of hams occupying every corner of the compact space. Nancy was a lot of fun to hang out with, and if you're ever able to make it to Princeton you should definitely stop by the Newsom's store and say hi. Downtown Princeton has a cute little historic district with several interesting shops, so it's a pleasant place to spend an afternoon. If you can't make it to Princeton, you can order Newsom's products over the internet by clicking here.


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Sunday, June 01, 2008

Hot Brown...Hot Damn

After I arrived in Lexington, Kentucky yesterday, I was sitting in my hotel room doing a little online research to discover what exactly about Lexington I needed to experience during my 36 hour visit. Naturally I was also on the hunt for a bacon adventure.

That is when I first learned about the Kentucky Hot Brown.

Yeah, that's right, a "Hot Brown." I didn't think it sounded terribly appetizing at first either.

So what exactly is a Hot Brown? It is a hot sandwich that originated in 1926 at the Brown Hotel just up the road in Louisville, Kentucky. The hotel wanted to create a signature sandwich, and the Hot Brown was the result of that effort. The Hot Brown is an open-faced sandwich that consists of turkey, bacon and Mornay sauce on a slice of bread that is broiled until the bread is crispy and the sauce begins to brown. These days there are many local variations on the Hot Brown throughout Kentucky, but they all revolve around these four basic ingredients.

Further research on Hot Brown sandwiches in Lexington led me to discover Ramsey's Diner, supposedly the location of the best Hot Browns in town. So I headed to their downtown location for lunch.

I saddled up to the bar and ordered my Hot Brown. About 10 minutes later, the most insane plate of food I've seen in a long time was placed in front of me. As the waitress was carrying it over, the guys a couple seats down from me at the bar busted out with a "what is that?!?" Obviously they weren't locals, which the waitress immediately acknowledged with a "you've never had a Kentucky Hot Brown?!?" I felt so 'in the know.'

The Ramsey's version of the Hot Brown consists of the following ingredients in order from bottom to top: white toast, sliced turkey, sliced ham, sliced tomatoes, Mornay sauce, cheddar cheese, and two crispy slices of bacon. This gooey madness fills up an entire dinner plate and it is far more than one person should consume in one sitting - I suggest sharing it with a friend (or two). I could only finish half of the Hot Brown myself. The key to maximizing your enjoyment of a Hot Brown is to get a little bit of each layer in every bite. The combination of flavors is comforting, pleasurable and naughty all at once.

By the way, I forgot to mention that I woke up this morning thinking about getting back into a regular exercise routine. Ironically, the Hot Brown served as the perfect motivation for this renewed commitment to fitness because after I paid my bill at Ramsey's I walked out the door, got in my car, drove straight to Dick's Sporting Goods, bought a new pair of tennis shoes, and then I went back to my hotel and hit the treadmill for an hour. And I'm still feeling a bit guilty about my Hot Brown experience. But boy was it worth it.


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