Bacon and avocado are two of my favorite foods, so when someone idly suggested smoking pork belly with avocado wood, I thought it was a brilliant idea and began searching for places to buy the right lumber. "You won't find any," warned Rashida Purifoy, a professional chef and friend who'd already been on the lookout for some.
I didn't think any more about our conversation until a few months later, when I fatally overwatered an avocado sapling in my front yard.
I occasionally make my own bacon in a backyard smoker and figured the corpse, which resembled a long, dried twig, might be enough to make one batch. So I called Purifoy to see if she was still interested in trying it out.
"Hell, yeah," she said.
Purifoy, who last year started a company called Cast Iron Gourmet, smokes her bacon in 500-pound batches using mainly hickory wood and had never cooked with avocado wood. We weren't sure if it would have a strong flavor like hickory or if it would be sweeter like cherry. Did it burn intensely, like oak, or slower, like apple?
We decided to ask an expert. "Let's go to TiGeorges' Chicken," Purifoy said.
As we drove down Glendale Boulevard in Los Angeles, I recognized the restaurant from the smoke wafting out of the top. When we parked, the air smelled different, although I couldn't put my finger on what was so distinct about it.
It turns out that TiGeorges' owner, George Laguerre, uses avocado wood to cook his rotisserie chicken.
Laguerre, a Haitian immigrant, said it's a staple in his home country, but he never intended to use it when he opened his restaurant, figuring he wouldn't be able to get enough.
But one morning in 2002, he ran out of the citrus wood he normally used and was desperately driving around Echo Park when he saw a downed avocado tree. The owner told Laguerre to take as much as he wanted.
He figured the wood would be a one-time-only event, but a Times article mentioned that TiGeorges' featured food cooked with it and people started asking for the avocado wood-infused chicken, and "I was stuck," Laguerre said with a laugh.
He now drives to the Santa Ynez area twice a month to get his wood, free, from area farmers.
I could see why Laguerre makes the trip when his chicken arrived. There were some of the mysterious flavors I'd smelled outside, a slight herbal aroma and even a bit of creaminess, like a fine, mild cigar, and none of the charred tastes of a stronger wood like hickory.
I was getting excited, with visions of turning my small, dead avocado tree into savory, creamy bacon.
But when Laguerre took a look at the wood in the trunk of my car, he simply closed the lid and said, "No."
He said the small pieces were too dry and would burn too hot, rendering the fat. But he gave us two large logs from his private stash, each about 18 inches long and a foot wide, much bigger than what I normally used.
After buying four slabs of pork belly, about 16 pounds in all, at a Chinese market, Purifoy and I took them to my house to cure.
We dry-cured two of the slabs in a typical salt and brown sugar rub, hoping it would provide a neutral base that would highlight the smoke flavor.
"Let's do something fun with the others," Purifoy said as she rummaged through my refrigerator.
She mixed orange juice, maple syrup and some coffee beans in a Ziploc bag and dumped in a pork belly while I watched dubiously, dubbing the creation "breakfast" bacon.
Then we decided to make a bacon that would reflect some Caribbean flavors and crushed several cloves of garlic and habanero chiles and added lime juice, molasses and other spices, as well as a healthy dose of dark rum.
We agreed to meet again in about a week to smoke the meat. In the meantime, I had to find a way to get Laguerre's logs into usable form.
I'd always used wood chips for smoking, but Purifoy prefers to use chunks because they burn longer. I've never trusted myself with a chain saw, so I got the logs split at a lumberyard and then spent a morning chopping it into 3- and 4-inch pieces at a colleague's backyard, alternating between swinging an ax and fishing the chunks out of his bushes.
I turned the pork bellies, which were curing in bags in the fridge, every night. The day before we were scheduled to meet, I rinsed them off and let them dry.
We loaded several wood chunks, including a few pieces of my dead tree, into my smoker, along with a thermometer to make sure that it didn't get above 200 degrees.
The chunks, especially the larger ones that rested directly on the smoker's electric coils, seemed like a fire hazard to me. Sure enough, the backyard was filled with smoke a few minutes later and flames licked around the sides of the lid, turning the smoker black. The thermometer read a whopping 325 degrees.
"Stand back," Purifoy said, dousing the flames with water from the garden hose until the temperature fell.
We had visions of the pork bellies turning to jerky in the mini-inferno, but were relieved when we took out the bacon 31/2 hours later. The outside was almost chocolate brown, but the meat inside was pink and there was plenty of glistening fat. Best of all, the avocado flavor was obvious in all of the bacon.
People came over to try our experiment, helping us slice the bacon and bake it in the oven. Some said they couldn't detect any avocado wood. And those who did disagreed on exactly what it tasted like, with one person saying he thought the bacon had a nutty quality while another claimed he detected tannins.
The next day, I planted a new avocado sapling in the front yard and promised to take better care of it.
But while I was lightly watering my newest plant, I noticed that the leaves on our persimmon tree were looking kinda brown …