The Bacon Sundae: Brilliant Or Tragic?

Is Burger King’s new bacon sundae a delightful concept, or the most recent example of all that’s wrong about American food?

That’s pretty much the divide in opinion here at Salt Central, as well as in online forums and social media, where the bacon sundae is inspiring fierce debate. “Really? I know sales are low and all but REALLY?” questioned one Twitter skeptic. “Americans eat death, pay for the privilege,” added another. Countered by an enthusiast who typed: “IT’S ABOUT TIME!”

That’s a lot of passion for a $2.49 menu item available only at a handful of Burger Kings in Nashville, Tenn. “The company is currently testing menu items in a small sampling of U.S. restaurants,” spokesperson Randi Farynyk told The Salt. “The brand does not have plans to expand the test to additional markets at this time.”

Drat. Count me among the staffers here who said “Yeah!” when the sweet-salty-savory news broke. Since NPR wasn’t popping for a road trip, I had to turn to Sam Bradley, a 27-year-old Nashville resident I found on Twitter, for confirmation. She had already trundled over to her local Burger King to check it out.

Bradley wasn’t wowed by the two whole pieces of bacon poked into the ice cream. “If they chopped and mixed it in, it would be better,” she reported. “But over all I would say it’s a success.”

She would know. She’d already tested Jack in the Box’s bacon milkshake, which is made with “bacon flavored syrup.” The verdict: “It was terrible, because it was fake flavor.”

It turns out that Bradley, who works as a manager for shipping logistics, is a fan of all things bacon. As such, she’s part of a continuing trend toward the “baconization” of every possible food group.

It’s not a bad ploy, if the goal is to get people to eat more food. As NPR’s Eliza Barclay has reported, bacon’s abundant fat and protein speak to our evolutionary craving for calories. And since 90 percent of what we taste is odor, that bacony smell offers a powerful lure.

Fast food joints figured that out long before the bacon sundae. A surprisingly large number of burgers are draped with bacon, perhaps to atone for less-than-juicy patties, or maybe just to deliver more greasy, salty taste. Last year, the site Serious Eats totaled up the number of bacon burgers at national chains. Five Guys led the list, with 50 percent of all burgers topped with cured pork belly. Wendy’s sported 47 percent. And Hardee’s came in third with 38 percent.

In offering bacon desserts, the fast-food chains are following a trend that high-end eateries embraced years ago. NPR’s Kitchen Window reported on the bacon-and-egg ice cream at Britain’s Fat Duck restaurant, which is credited with launching the concept back in 2004. Bacon brownies, bacon cupcakes and chocolate-chip bacon cookies have followed.

Sam Bradley is down with that. She makes her own bacon ice cream by adding bacon crumbles to store-bought butter pecan ice cream. “It tastes like breakfast,” she says. “It’s amazing.” And that’s just one of the bacon-powered dishes in Bradley’s repertoire.

She figures she eats about two pounds of bacon a week, an indulgence she counters by avoiding starches, including pasta, bread and rice. Her bacon obsession hasn’t ruined her health so far. She reports that she’s 5’7″ and weighs 125 pounds – despite the bacon cheesecake she made herself for her birthday.

Has the bacon trend peaked? No way, she says. “It’s more accessible than ever.” Just down the road at Burger King, in fact.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.