Okay… have you ever seen that show How It’s Made on the Science Channel? That is a great show. Maybe I’m a total geek, but I find it totally enthralling. From lamps to baseballs to bacon, they’ve covered it all… start to finish. And, it’s not until I watch that show that I get all contemplative on where “things” come from. All I know is that “things” are just there. I go to the store and buy what I need. Granted, I buy responsibly. I am all about sustainability and responsibility. Most often, I let the third party certifications give their stamp of approval, and I take that as truth, though. But, where exactly does it come from?
All that to say… I was asked to tour and photograph the Pederson’s Natural Farms plant. The day I toured, they were making bacon (which of course is what made them famous). Now, keep in mind as you read this that I am a regular ol’ girl. I don’t work in bacon. Or meat. Or the grocery industry in any capacity. I am a relatively scatter brained creative type. Basically… what I’m saying is that I don’t know a dang thing about making bacon. I don’t know any of the technical terms for what I witnessed and photographed. What I DO know is that I loved the experience… so much so that I felt inspired to write a little something to go along with the photos I took.
I’m a consumer. That’s about the extent of my relationship with bacon. (I mean… I’m in LOVE with the stuff, of course. Technically, though, I’m just a consumer.) But, folks, I’m telling you… this was SO super cool. I felt like a fourth grader on a field trip… my eyes filled with wonder, my mind filled with questions. So, here’s how it works at Pederson’s Natural Farms in Hamilton, Texas.
They start with a 2000 pound shipment of fresh pork bellies. Inside of that big ol’ 2000 pound box, there are an average of 200 pork bellies. Two pork bellies are obtained per pig. This is where it starts. And, I don’t know if this is what he bargained for, but here’s Cody Lane, President of Pederson’s Natural Farms, in an attempt to move one of those 2000 pound boxes.
I don’t know where the fresh pork bellies go from this box while they await the next step. Somewhere cold, I’m sure. (That whole place was freezing!) Anyway, when it’s time, the fresh bellies and the seasonings are put into tumblers. I wasn’t allowed to take pictures of the seasonings room. (Recipes, people. Secret recipes.) But, here are the tumblers which I assume just… well… tumble the meat and seasonings together.
These little guys can handle up to 800 pounds.
And, these big daddies can handle 2000 pounds! (That’s one whole box of pork bellies. WHOA!)
They use these tumblers to season the bellies because they never ever inject the meat with anything. Straight from the tumblers, they get hung on metal hangers called combs so they can be hung on racks. From there, they are wheeled in to smokers where they are left to smoke for six hours. I think this is exceptionally cool. Most run of the mill cured bacon is injected with curing solutions and liquid smoke to give it it’s flavor. Here at Pederson’s, it’s the real deal! It’s actually smoked!
Cody Lane, President, showing me a handful of the applewood chips used to give the bacon it’s smoky flavor.
And, here’s Neil Dudley, Vice President of Pederson’s Natural Farms, inside the largest smoker.
From the smoker, the bellies are blast chilled to 35° to get the temperature down quickly. But, after that, they are temper chilled to 18° to prepare them for the next step in the process.
And, if you were wondering, this is what pork bellies temper chillin’ on their combs look like:
Okay… from here… this is where things got really exciting for me! (And, these folks at the Pederson’s plant may think I’m nuts for my sheer excitement over this, but it was WAY cool. They see it every day. I see it, oh… never.) Anyway, on this Friday that I visited, all the action was in the packaging room. They had those machines cranked up. They were bacon makin’ fools that day!
Here’s what was happening (as best I could tell). They’d take those racks of seasoned, tumbled, smoked & chilled bellies, and they’d wheel ‘em on in to the packaging room. From there, there was a fellow putting each belly, one by one, in to a machine that pressed them. And, what exactly that machine does and why… I don’t know. I’m going with the context clues and assuming it literally pressed the bellies, thus compacting them. (I asked questions… I promise. It’s just that it was loud in there, and there were a lot of steps involved. I’m scatter brained, remember? And feeling like a fourth grader on a field trip.)
Here’s the man “manning” the pressing machine:
And, the results:
Now, from here, I’m told that the bellies have to be chilled from 18° to 20° for the next step. (But, is it called “chilling” if it’s actually an increase in temperature by 2°? Oh… the juvenile questions that pop into my head.) I hear they have to be a very specific temperature for each step in the process, which I find quite interesting since it’s as little as a 2° difference. I’d love to know the reasons for all of that.
Okay, anyway… so, there’s a gentleman that takes the pressed bellies and places them on the little belt that feeds it right into the machine that cuts it into bacon slices. (Was that a run-on sentence?) And, there’s a guy that stands on the other end of that machine greeting the slices and placing the correct amount on each “L” board (that’s the fancy, technical name for the bacon packaging… I think). And, here’s another thing that’s super cool… Pederson’s is SERIOUS about their quality control. Each slice is held to certain specs. Each package is held to certain specs. You can rest assured that you will have the exact number of perfect slices per package.
And, as the “L” board makes it’s way down the line, there are folks along the way making sure each package is perfect… perfectly aligned and ready to be wrapped in film.
Into the machine that wraps it up, and out it comes! Now, this area of the line was difficult for me to photograph. (Bummer!) But waiting on the other side of that machine for the now perfectly wrapped up packages of bacon is the amazing Caroline. Caroline has been with Pederson’s for 10+ years. I’m told that she can tell if the package is weight-wise incorrect by feel alone. Wow! That’s pretty impressive to me. We are talking ounces here… or a portion of an ounce. I’d love to have that skill. I really, really would. Maybe that would be my superhero power if I could choose one.
So, from Caroline, the packages can go one of two places. If all specs are met, they go to be boxed. If the package has too little or too much bacon, or if some of the slices got in there a little wonky, it’s sent over to a couple ladies to “fix it”. These ladies open the package and add or remove bacon as needed or straighten it out. They stack the second chance “L” boards and then send them back to be wrapped again.
Back to Caroline they go. At this point, they’re sure to pass specs, and so they go on to be boxed. There are an average of 16 packages of bacon per box which equals about one pork belly. Interesting, huh? But, before these cases of bacon get sent out anywhere, they are passed through a metal detector. Passing the product through a metal detector before it ships out is a standard required by several vendors, and Pederson’s is happy to oblige.
Once the metal detector gives the all clear, the cases are stacked on pallets and ready to be shipped to your local grocery store.
I love this. I just love knowing where my bacon is coming from. And, the thing is… you can bet Pederson’s is my bacon from now on. I loved the stuff before, but seeing how it’s all done and the standards they uphold… I’m sold. Since touring the Pederson’s plant, I’ve actually Googled and watched videos on how bacon is made. The Pederson’s process is SO different… far superior. It’s not ever dipped in anything or injected with anything. The flavors are natural. You’ll not find that paper thin piece of bacon in their packages that falls apart when you try to pull it up for cooking. It doesn’t shrink up and shrivel to next to nothing because they use superior quality pork bellies. (The fat to lean ratio is way better than other bacons.) If you think about it, you’re getting more bang for your buck with Pederson’s because you’re actually getting more meat in the end. And, this girl here? I’m slightly obsessive about cleanliness. I would not hesitate to feed my kiddos this bacon having seen where it comes from and how it’s produced. So, yeah… WAY excited about this little educational trip to Pederson’s. This is definitely the best field trip I’ve been on in a while.