You just never know which combinations of flavors are going to work. The first guy to extol the virtues of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches was probably met with ridicule, and we all know the story of Chubby Hubby, an unlikely mix of pretzels, peanut butter, fudge and vanilla malt ice cream that began as a prank by a couple of mischievous coworkers, yet remains a highly successful Ben and Jerry’s flavor to this day.
I cling to these thoughts for dear life as I prepare to sample the most unique item that the local candy store Marini’s has to offer: a stick of bacon smothered in milk chocolate. It’s a combination that would make Homer Simpson drool, but between the obvious strangeness of the snack and the fact that I generally don’t eat factory-farmed meat, the prospect of biting into this thing is putting my journalistic intrepidness to the test.
“It’s a subtle flavor—we didn’t want to overdo it, so it’s more of an aftertaste than just kind of crunching down on bacon,” Joseph Marini III, owner of Marini’s and the man responsible for this culinary oddity, assures me as I tentatively sink my teeth into the candy-coated pig flesh.
At first, the overriding flavor is that of chocolate—simple, familiar and seductive. Then yummy-sweet gives way to salty-smoky. Like the image of a buxom beauty morphing into a badass robot assassin in Terminator 3, it’s a one-two punch of can’t-miss stimuli. I come away from the experience relieved: If chocolate bacon doesn’t make me want to sing hymns of rapture, neither does it make me want to bow to the proverbial porcelain God.
Still, much like deep-fried Twinkies and Oreos (yes, these are real things), the idea of chocolate bacon leaves an aftertaste of all-American indulgence. You really have to wonder where an idea like this came from: Was Marini innocently walking down the street holding a stick of bacon, when he collided, a la the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup commercials of old, with a stranger carrying a cup of hot cocoa? Or was someone merely stoned, pregnant or both?
As it turns out, the candy’s creators were definitely not pregnant. Marini explains that the vision of chocolate bacon came about during a ski trip to Utah that he took with several buddies somewhere around 2005. “We were sitting around one late night, and [my friends] decided that they wanted to come up with a Utah ski trip candy,” the easygoing business owner recalls. “After the first couple of ideas were thrown around that were illegal, one of the guys came up with, ‘Who doesn’t love chocolate? Who doesn’t love bacon? Let’s put them together.’”
After a failed attempt at uniting these two highly disparate flavors (“It was more like chocolate-covered beef jerky—not a good thing”), Marini hit on the magic formula. The candymaker brought the product of his toils into the store as a joke, only to unexpectedly find his new creation generating a sizeable buzz. Sniffing out the bacon by way of customer testimony, 300 newspapers across the nation ran articles “on what’s going on out in crazy California,” as Marini laughingly puts it. The surreal sweet has been the subject of several local radio and TV shows and is featured in the new Ripley’s Believe It or Not book “Seeing Is Believing,” whose section “Fantastic Foods” mentions the fact that the chocolate bacon is sold at the Boardwalk. “I think it’s fantastic, not only for Marini’s, but for Santa Cruz,” Marini says of the Ripley’s shout-out. “I’m glad they recognized that it came out of Santa Cruz.”
Marini claims that the process of making chocolate-covered bacon is fairly simple: A certain cut of bacon that does a better job of staying crispy than most others (he won’t divulge its identity) is cooked on-premise and then cooled to a temperature where it can be dipped in the candy shop’s special blend of milk chocolate.
The chocolate-covered bacon can be found at all three Marini’s locations in Santa Cruz. Marini says he enjoys watching customers’ reactions as they take notice of the bacon: “Half of the customers don’t believe it, and as soon as they taste it, they’re like, ‘Oh, my God! This is actually good! This actually makes sense: the salty, the sweet, the chocolate—it’s perfect!’”
Though various kinds of chocolate bars with bacon bits have been haunting the checkout counters lately, Marini’s is one of the only sweet dealers in the world to boast whole bacon strips covered in chocolate, making it a force to be reckoned with in what its inventor whimsically calls “the bacon movement.” “There’s a big bacon phenomenon going on right now that we’re at the forefront of,” he notes with tongue-in-cheek pride.
The chocolate bacon’s success has inspired Marini to create a line of maple syrup ice cream with chocolate-covered bacon chunks. “We call it Vegan’s Nightmare,” he laughs. “That’s a popular one, too. It tastes just like pancakes, syrup and bacon. It’s an awesome combination.”
That, of course, is the harrowed journalist’s cue to once again pluck up his courage and nurse at the bosom of the bizarre. The bacon ice cream proves surprisingly pleasant. The key here is subtlety: You wouldn’t necessarily know that the secret ingredient was bacon—it simply adds a bit of the nutty crunch that makes chunky ice cream what it is.
Marini’s has long displayed a taste for the unusual: Even in the days before the bacon revolution, the shop carried chocolate-covered potato chips, which, while not unique to Marini’s, are certainly unique. The candy shop also offers a cereal bar consisting of the children’s cereals Cap’n Crunch, Frosted Flakes, Fruity Pebbles and Cocoa Krispies mixed with white chocolate. Marini says the store is currently working on turning the cereal bar into a flavor of ice cream.
“We’re trying to keep candy real,” the confectioner notes. “Candy is fun; chocolate is fun. Keeping it on the forefront of what’s new in the culinary world is sometimes hard with candy, but it’s also sometimes fun.”
And in the end, as the chocolate bacon proves, “There’s not a whole lot of things that don’t go with chocolate.”
Marini’s is located at 1308 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz, 423-3299; Santa Cruz Municipal Wharf #55A, 425-7341; Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, 423-7258; mariniscandies.com.