Our friend, the scarily smart Ollalieberry expert and Chicken Alchemist Natty, had a peach tree in her backyard.
It was an intrepid little tree, producing as many peaches as it could. It withstood the cold winter rains, blustering windstorms, broiling summer sun, and the other various indignities suffered by trees in backyards with dogs. It kept up its job like a trooper, even when Natty noticed that it seemed unwell, and had to prop it up. It was not too much later that she discovered that it had been infected with oak tree fungus. Soon afterward, it died.
Having a tree die on you is not an easy thing when you don’t have that many. First of all, you feel like you’ve let down Mother Earth and/or Gaia and Arbor Day and Al Gore and the reversal of global warming and pretty much every National Geographic special you saw as a kid. Second, you have to find somebody to do something about it, which usually requires money you don’t have because it’s a TREE and not some random weed, unless you’d like to wake up at midnight and see its tortured skeletal remains lurking in the dark like some sort of creepy spiritual entity, and then suddenly you’re in a horror movie. All of these results suck.
So what Natty did was exactly what any decent thinking Alchemist would do — use the tree to create something new. She cut us off a beautiful branch when she took the tree out, and we left it outside to season the entire winter. It dried through the late spring and then baked a few weeks in some hot summer sun we were lucky to receive. A few days ago, we took a look at it.
It was ready. I needed to make a batch of bacon — you can see how it’s done here — and to do it properly, you need to smoke it. Yes, yes, you can roast it in the oven or cook it on the grill and it’ll be perfectly fine. But it’s not bacon unless it’s really smoked, not just doused with smoke flavoring and caramel coloring (which is the stuff you get at the grocery store). Really, truly, smoked.
That leads us to the next question. You can’t just stuff a branch into a smoker or a grill. You have to prepare the wood first. Now there’s a dispute among folks who smoke meat that has reached almost religious proportions — what types of wood to use, pellets versus sawdust versus chips versus chunks, and the breaking point — to soak first or not. I’m not afraid to draw my own line and say I prefer fruitwood over hickory, cherry over apple, chips over sawdust, and I soaked. Briefly. (I am impatient.) But here I had a big-ass branch of peach, which I’d never used, and somebody had to do something about it.
Enter the UUH and the Den Of Dangerously Sharp Things That Make Loud Noises And Probably Won’t Stop When You Want Them To.
I handle large quantities of caustic lye on a regular basis for soapmaking — stuff that can burn your eyes out and strip your skin like a knife if you screw up — and yet I am absolutely terrified by some of the machines that the UUH has in the Den. (Note please that this does not make me a “girl,” it makes me a “wuss.” Precision is important.) When the UUH whipped out the Sawzall and what looked like a clamp from a medieval torture house I fled to eat bonbons or watch soap operas or do my nails or something.
After it was chopped into manageable pieces, then the Other Thing was employed.
This bandsaw is about a million years old. Okay, not a million, but it’s old — decades at least. (At least 26, says the UUH.) The manual, which the UUH somehow found on the Web, looks like it was designed by Don Draper in “Mad Men.” And you can still find parts for it and it still works. That’s how we used to make things, I think. So once the UUH had Sawzalled the branch into manageable pieces, it was up to the bandsaw.
I have to hide when he’s using things like this.
I have visions of emergency rooms and prosthetics and extensive occupational therapy. I am a catastrophist.
But in the end, we had first this:
And then the bandsaw again to get them into chunks. My first chunks. I was so proud.
I’m not going to go through all the prep stages for bacon again, as you can see them here. But this is what the smoker looked like, once those beautiful peach chunks got themselves up and going.
I don’t have one of the high-tech, programmable beauties that I know some folks have. Mine is a steel box with a few vents, a propane burner, a thermometer that’s about as reliable as a politician (I use an oven therm inside for reliable reports), and a desperate need for niggly vent-attention if the wind or temperature fluctuates even for a few minutes. God help us all if it rains.
Yet this peach wood is a beautiful thing. Deciding to explore one side of the religious war, I’d chosen not to soak the chunks but rather let them start dry. We’d experimented the day before with this approach on a tri-tip and it came out like it’d been made by an angel.
So for the bacon, I did the same thing. There was no bitter scent at all, no hint of creosote, even with a heavy smoke at the beginning. It settled down, started smoking evenly, and then laid down the work after it was done. It took another hour or so to finish cooking the bacon to the appropriate temperature (150F, as the bacon is cured).
And now, here we have it, right out of the smoker. I’ll be peeling the rind after it cools a bit and wrapping it, and feeling it was a good day’s work — even if I do smell like a forest fire and the neighbors are almost certainly going to report me to the Bay Area Air Quality Nazis any minute now.
But for real bacon, what sacrifice isn’t worth it?