By Sam Padgett
As a lifelong Virginian, it’s hard to be surprised by the versatility of bacon. The meaty treat is used like salt around here—it sneaks its way into almost any dish. I’ve even found it in one of my all-time favorite dishes, shrimp and grits, a dish that by its very name precludes bacon. Regardless, I thought I had experienced all that bacon had to offer. I was wrong.
The second CURED Bacon Festival that took place July 21 at the Sprint Pavilion, drew 9 local restaurants that brought their most creative bacon-themed creations to compete for the coveted CURED Cup: a large trophy of a flying pig, essentially the Stanley Cup of central Virginia bacon dishes.
But the main aspect of the festival isn’t all about the meat, it’s philanthropy. If any festivalgoer had a particular hog in the fight, they could purchase extra voting tokens in order to influence the results to their liking. The money from the voting went to the Local Food Hub, a nonprofit whose mission is to increase community access to locally sourced food.
There isn’t any specific reason for the CURED Cup’s presence in Charlottesville. In fact, bacon festivals are nearly as ubiquitous as wine and strawberry festivals in these parts. Richmond, Hampton Roads and Smithfield all have their own bacon festivals. The reason for ours is simple. According to Kirby Hutto, general manager of the Sprint Pavilion, “Everyone loves bacon.” That claim was made clear by several “I Love Bacon” shirts, which I saw from the moment I entered the festival.
One of the most spectacular bacon dishes I had at the CURED fest came from Fellini’s. The chilled bacon soup with jowl bacon and charred corn was a delight. Many of the other participating restaurants relied more on bacon as a condiment rather than making bacon itself the star. Chef Chris Humphrey’s jowl bacon, made from Autumn Olive Farms pork, was incredible. Instead of a crunch, it had a gooey chewiness. Instead of a savory saltiness, it tasted sweet, with a touch of vinegary tartness. Instead of being sliced long and thin, it was cut into more cubic chunks, creating a gradient of texture throughout the bite. Overall, the dish presented bacon in a way almost antithetical to the stereotypical bacon experience. Needless to say, I gave them my vote.
That being said, there were several other impressive bacon dishes at the festival, in particular The Whiskey Jar’s pork belly and jalapeno pimento mac and cheese with watermelon rind relish. This dish is aggressively Southern. Pimento cheese, sometimes known as the caviar of the South, works perfectly in a bacon dish; its rich creaminess fit like a glove around the savory bacon and sour relish.
The ultimate victor of the CURED Cup was Parallel 38. Chef Johnny Garver offered up a pork belly gyro and a bacon-and-Brussels-sprouts dish. Brussels sprouts are one of the foods that I can’t entirely warm up to. I was forced to eat them as a child, so they have permanently been cast as a punishment food in my brain. These sprouts were sautéed in bacon fat and topped with house-made bacon jam, pomegranate arils and oro nero; it was terrific. The savory and sweet flavors partnered well with the leafy toughness of the Brussels sprouts, making this one of the few dishes at the festival that I ate more than one serving of.
I even spotted a man picking a dropped Brussels sprout up off the pavilion floor and placing it back in his mouth where it belonged. The true mark of a winning dish.
Bring on the bacon
Nine local restaurants brought forth their best bacon dishes for judging.
BBQ Exchange: Bourbon BBQ Basted Bacon-wrapped Shrimp
Commonwealth Restaurant & Skybar: Braised Bacon Banh Mi
Feast!: BLT with Peach-Candied Virginia Bacon
Fellini’s Italian Restaurant: Chilled and Sweet Bacon Soup with Candied Jowl Bacon
The Ivy Inn Restaurant: Bacon-wrapped Tater Tot atop Bacon Chili
Keevil & Keevil Grocery and Kitchen: Funnel Cake with Maple Bacon Frosting
Maya: BLT Salad
Parallel 38: House-made Bacon Jam over Brussels-Pomegranate with Oro Nero
The Whiskey Jar: Bourbon/Sorghum Cured Pork Belly, Jalapeño Pimento Mac and Cheese with Pepper Jelly
An earlier version of this story contained multiple errors. Nine, not 11 restaurants participated (Timbercreek and Rapture were not at the CURED festival); Fellini’s chef Chris Humphrey deserves credit for the jowl bacon made from Autumn Olive Farms pork; Parallel 38’s pork belly gyro was indeed a bacon dish (not a barbecue-style pork); and Parallel 38’s Brussels sprouts did not include labneh, but it did include bacon–the sprouts were sautéed in bacon fat and topped with (among other things) bacon jam.