Photograph by Ray Lego/Getty Images
If you are going to spend your entire life in the pork industry, you could scarcely hope for a better name than Joe Leathers. Leathers, who proudly inserts the nickname “Bacon Belly” between his first and last names, is now a retiree in Kansas City, Mo. But he has been a pig man since the beginning. “My whole career has revolved around the pork industry,” says Leathers, who was born in Austin, a southern Minnesota town where the pork-producing corporation Hormel (HRL) has been based since 1891. It’s where Spam was born. “If you didn’t work for Hormel, you didn’t work,” he says.
Leathers began at age 21, back in 1970, wielding a knife on the killing floor of Hormel’s giant slaughterhouse for three and a half years, dispatching and dismembering hogs into the bellies, chops, and loins Americans ate. Over his three and a half decades in the business, he sold pork, bought pork, marketed pork, and managed the people and the pigs at the core of the pork business. In all that time, nothing prepared Joe “Bacon Belly” Leathers for Bacon Mania.
In the past decade, bacon has grown into an industry generating more than $4 billion in annual sales. It has moved from a breakfast meat to a food trend touching an incredible array of consumer goods, both edible and not, from bacon-heavy fast-food burgers and bacon-infused desserts at fine dining restaurants to bottles of bacon-distilled vodka and even a sexual lubricant formulated to smell (and taste) like bacon. More than cupcakes, ramen, or kale, bacon has become the defining food trend of a society obsessed with food trends.