By Ryan Bedell
As part of our new “Stern Hobbies” series, The Oppy is taking a look at off-the-beaten-path interests among some of our classmates at Stern. If you have a hobby you would like to write about, please e-mail the Oppy at email@example.com. Today’s feature comes from Langone student Ryan Bedell.
In 2014, on the island of Jeju off the southern coast of South Korea, my life was forever changed. I could point to the growth that happened in my year there, or the friends I made, or even the severely broken foot I suffered in a rather serious motorcycle accident. I will not, however, point to any of those things. What changed my life was one simple idea.
I grew up in St. Louis, a town so steeped in barbecue an entire style of cooking ribs is named for it. I had some damn good barbecue growing up, whether it was ribs in St. Louis or pulled pork across the state in Kansas City. Even so, as a kid, barbecue was just a regular cuisine for an occasional meal, not a way of life. In 2014, barbecue became a way of life for me.
One of my closest new friends in South Korea, Lucas, shared my craving for barbecue. In Jeju, we could get Korean barbecue, but we needed that slow-cooked, smoky, fall-off-the-bone barbecue, and after several salivating conversations, we took the plunge and ordered a smoker over the internet.
Things only escalated from there.
We started off small, with pork tenderloins or whole chickens that would mostly just feed the two of us and Lucas’ wife. We were just having fun. We didn’t realize we could get good at barbecuing. I think that’s how most passions are born. It eventually became a significant creative outlet. We had a blast trying to perfect our rub and sauce recipes and trying out different styles of cooking from around the U.S. We learned the valuable life lesson of how to hold the temperature on a cheap smoker during a typhoon (literally). We started cooking weekly, if not multiple times a week.
The idea of making money on barbecue didn’t occur to me until after my motorcycle accident. In the aftermath, I faced medical bills and expenses I hadn’t foreseen, and I was already living on a fairly meager salary just for the opportunity to live abroad. But necessity is the mother of invention, as they say. We lived in a tropical paradise surrounded by American families working for international schools. Surely, they might crave some barbecue, too?
With our newly-developed skills and a need to raise some cash, we got serious. We built our own smoker out of cinder blocks and steel on the beach, cooked an entire pig, and invited our entire school’s staff to purchase plates of meat and sides for a small fee. Our expectation was to put any slim profits toward my medical bills. But then something funny happened: We made a killing.
From there, the sky was the limit. Lucas still lives in South Korea, and he regularly nets $1,000 or more in profit for one go of selling to acquaintances and colleagues. He has plans, if he can acquire the right visa, to open his own restaurant. He sells ribs, pulled pork, and since I left in 2015 he has been trying to convince me on the merits of smoking bacon.
What is more satisfying than bacon, honestly? Put it on a burger. Put it on a salad. Crunch a strip for breakfast. Bacon might just be the most universally American thing we’ve got. Finally, in this time of partisan divide, a unifying factor. Bacon. On that, I think we can all agree.
That brings me to the real story, 2020. What a mess, eh? We’ve all been trapped like rats in a cage for 10 months, and surely like many of you, I began scratching at the bars for new hobbies or literally anything that would keep my mind occupied. I started getting the newspaper delivered daily so I could do the crossword puzzle. I started playing more video games than I’d played since undergrad. I was, to put it kindly, losing it.
Lucas reached out and sent me a photo of some bacon he had just smoked, and something in my brain clicked. He told me it’s a fairly easy process, and so I decided I was going to try it once and see how it went. I bought some pork belly, cured it for 10 days in my refrigerator, and then smoked it on my smoker for a few hours. I let it rest in the fridge overnight, correctly imagining that cold bacon would be easier to slice.
I want you to imagine briefly that we’re in the 1996 generational film classic Space Jam featuring Michael Jordan. Do you remember the scene where Jordan gets bonked on the head and little cartoon birdies fly around his dazed and confused face? That’s how I felt when I tried that first bite of my homemade bacon. I was confused. How was it that easy? How was it that good? What had I been missing out on?
This was in August of this year. I have made upwards of 30 pounds of bacon since. Similarly to how Lucas and I progressed back in South Korea, I’ve been loving the creative process of figuring out the best cures, flavors, wood for smoking, and uses of the bacon. I’ve gotten very creative with BLTs, quiches, bacon wrapped steak… If there is a way to incorporate bacon, I am going to find it.
Naturally, this wasn’t something I could keep quiet about. Much of that 30 pounds of bacon has gone to colleagues and friends eager to try my creations. I have perfected “thick cut, cherry/almond wood smoked, maple brown sugar bacon,” and now I’m progressing to bolder flavors. One of my Stern classmates saw a picture of the bacon (he hasn’t even tried it yet!), and we’ve decided we’re going to try to start selling it in the new year. We’ve been researching cottage food laws, how to sell at farmers’ markets, and cold shipping. I’m definitely having more fun with it than I did just playing video games in my free time.
It has been a fun hobby to pursue, and I’m thrilled we’re trying to turn it into a business. It’s so easy, particularly in this pandemic, to get stuck. My days, even still, often go like this: go to work, sit in front of my screen all day, maybe have class or do some homework, and then rinse, lather, repeat. Bacon has taught me that the endless pursuit of creativity and perfection are what keep me sane. I need a goal to work toward. I need to be striving for more and grinding it out and keeping busy. Without goals, I start to lose it a bit. It’s clear to me now, I needed bacon for that reminder.
Photo credit: Ryan Bedell