Guest Column: Season of ideal BLT is brief, luscious, tasty

John Kass

Is there anything more classically American than the perfect bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich?

It’s salty, meaty, crispy with lettuce, rich with mayonnaise on thick toasted white bread. It’s salad and meat in one bite. And it’s the Chicago Tribune’s signature sandwich, since this newspaper gets some credit for helping popularize it in this country.

“I’ve never eaten one,” said a young woman born in the former Yugoslavia. “I’ve had tomato. I’ve had bacon. But never a BLT.”

How incredibly sad.

Readers on Facebook have their own favorite BLT styles and bacon haunts.

“Who needs the L & the T?” asked a former colleague, Cheryl “Deuce” Jackson, a baconista.

“John! John! John!” admonished reader Paul LeBlanc. “There is no end to BLT time — 365 days per year, friend!!! Great on some lightly toasted French bread with spicy mustard (I’m from Louisiana) and also great with guacamole, as mentioned above — homemade mayo is the best, if it is good homemade!”

Paul! Paul! Paul! BLTs end when the good homegrown tomatoes are gone. Eating winter store-bought tomatoes — those pink slabs of tasteless cellulose and pectin — is like looking into a fun-house mirror. All you’re doing is mocking yourself.

“I’m a BLT fan,” said Paul Virant, chef and owner of Vie in Western Springs, Ill., one of the top restaurants, if not the finest, in the Chicago area.

The championship BLTs I eat are mom-made. My mom grew up in her father’s diner, Pete’s Lunch in Guelph, Ontario, and she can whip up a dreamy, classic BLT with my wife’s tomatoes and bacon from Casey’s Market in a few minutes. I bite down and my eyes begin fluttering.

But Virant is such a creative chef, and we’ve so enjoyed his restaurant, that I wanted to hear what he had to say.

“The BLT is a classic combination that works,” he said. “The smoky element of the bacon with the sweetness and acidity of the tomatoes. The nice crunch of some greens and then some really good bread and then it’s all brought together with the mayonnaise of your choice. It’s a great sandwich, really.”

Virant offered alternative ingredients that can kick a BLT into another dimension: smoked fish, like trout, instead of bacon; or country ham or pork shoulder, even headcheese. For the “lettuce,” he suggests arugula or mustard greens.

Recently, he made BLTs for his family, using honey whole-wheat bread, made from local honey and wheat flour, and he made his own basil mayonnaise.

The key to the bacon is the way it’s cooked: “Medium crisp is good because it’s contained better in the sandwich. If it’s too crispy, then one bite and you lose the bacon.”

And tomatoes?

“The juicer the better. Big, big tomatoes. Growing your own or going to the farmers market is your best bet.”

Make yours fancy or make yours my way, just do me one favor. Don’t skimp on the bacon. Forget that supermarket stuff and get thee to a good butcher for the real thing.

Last week, Joe Lane, at Casey’s Market, briefly ran out of Usinger’s bacon from Milwaukee, and he had a riot on his hands. One customer whined and cried like a baby. But I stopped crying when Joe had me try some Celebrity slab bacon from fat Hungarian porkers.

“I use that slab bacon, my favorite,” Lane said. “We go through 4 pounds of bacon a week at home. I mean, my kids love bacon. The tomato is just the garnish.”

“A lot of people have fallen out of love with the BLT because they forget about it,” said Barron, a former sous chef at the Pump Room. “We put our own little twist on it to make it a recognizable sandwich again and remind people what’s so awesome about the BLT. It’s got a great contrast, the crisp with the fatty, the bacon and the tomatoes.”

The crisp with the fatty is unforgettable, but soon the good tomatoes will be gone. So hurry. Make yourself a great BLT. Because winter is coming.

John Kass is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. Readers may send him email at [email protected].