Nov. 15—EASTON, Pa. — This time of year, Nate Thomas of Breakaway Farms is usually elbow-deep in bacon in this colonial town's Centre Square, as crowds five people deep squeal in delight in front of his stall at the PA Bacon Fest.

November's annual ode to bacon usually draws thousands of fans with a common goal: To indulge in bacon in every way imaginable, including in beverage form. More than a few take a package or two of Mr. Thomas' specialty flavors home for later.

The 45-year-old animal farmer and Jeremy Bialker, executive chef and general manager of Two Rivers Brewing Co., have been familiar faces at the fest since its inception nine years ago. And boy, has it been a wild ride. What started as a specialty day for their neighboring booths at the Easton Farmers' Markethas morphed into a hog wild event that last year brought more than 80,000 people to eastern Pennsylvania's Lehigh Valley for two days of bacon-centric food and drink, live music, demos and hog-calling.

PA Bacon Fest PA Bacon Fest is held in Easton, Pa., each November. Next year the festival will mark its 10th anniversary.

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This year's fest, on Nov. 7-8, was a totally different animal thanks to COVID-19.

The Greater Easton Development Partnership had to totally retool the annual pig party to comply with the state's social restrictions. For the first time ever, the free fest was a ticketed event, with $20 reserved seating for around 1,000 guests at six 90-minute sessions over the weekend. It also slashed last year's 200-plus vendors to a mere half-dozen, and moved the fest from the heart of downtown to a tent three miles away at Hugh Moore Park.

The fest has become the nonprofit's biggest fundraiser, so having to scale back so dramatically was "very disheartening," said special events and promotions manager Marcy McKinney. She starts planning the event a year in advance.

"We wanted to keep it alive and in front of people," she said.

So when it became clear in September after months of hopeful waiting that a large event wouldn't be feasible, they put together a more intimate plan. The result was a scaled-down version that would both be safe for vendors and attendees and provide much-needed revenue for downtown businesses via a first-ever PA Bacon Fest Restaurant Week on Nov. 2-8.

More than 20 restaurants, sweet shops and bakeries signed on, offering everything from bacon kofta curry to candied bacon pumpkin pizza to bacon-studded ice cream and cookies.

As in years past, attendees also could pay an additional $20 for a "Bacon & Brew" tasting event featuring six beers from Two Rivers Brewing Co. and six flavored bacons from Breakaway Farms. But there was no getting around the fact that despite brilliant blue skies and balmy, un-November-like T-shirt weather, coronavirus was an unwelcome guest at this year's party.

Attendees had to mask up while standing in line to buy food or merchandise and while moving around the giant, open-air tent. In addition, only six could gather at a table to eat or listen to the live music, with each at least 6 feet apart from the other on the grass.

Another sign of the times: Bottles of hand sanitizer on every table, and a crew of volunteers armed with spray bottles of disinfectant at the ready.

On Sunday, Joseph and Karma Vanfleet of Byram, New Jersey, were nursing beers under the tent while listening to the Craig Thatcher Trio. He said this year's fest couldn't compare to last year — when he came in second in a bacon eating contest — but it was still a pretty good way to spend an afternoon.

"You get to spend time with friends in a fun environment, and try so many new flavors," said Mrs. Vanfleet.

Dave Whisner, who's been friends with Mr. Vanfleet since grade school, agreed. "It's very good for the town, tradition-wise, and we need to get back to normal." Then he added: "You can't go wrong with bacon!"

Donte Evans, of Easton, said he was there "to support the town." Strolling the grounds with a bourbon bacon-on-a-stick in hand, he added that being outside in the fresh air "makes me feel protected."

PA Bacon Fest started small enough, almost on a whim.

Mr. Thomas — known affectionately as Farmer Nate — has long sold meat from the free-range cattle and pigs he raises on eight farms in the Mount Joy area. One day back in 2011, he and Mr. Bialker, who had a booth next to his at the Easton Farmers' Market, got to talking. How fun would it be to do a theme day focused on bacon?

They were surprised when thousands turned out and the vendors sold out of all bacon within no time. The first fest in 2012 confirmed it. Attendance grew to 9,000 and the bacon was gone by 11:30 a.m.

"I did 180 pieces of chocolate-covered bacon in 20 minutes," Mr Thomas recalled with a laugh.

In 2013, the fest expanded to include more than 60 vendors, including seven food trucks, and activities like pig racing, a Hunka Hunka Burnin' Bacon Elvis contest and a pig-themed art show. The hungry crowd of 17,000 people ate all the bacon by 1 p.m.

Clearly, more days — and more bacon — were in order. In 2014, it became a two-day event with more than 100 vendors dishing up some 30,000 pounds of bacon. It's grown every year since.

"You walk outside, and you just smell the bacon in the air," said Mr. Bialker. "There's just this feeling you get."

In a non-pandemic year, the fest —which also celebrates the nation's oldest, continuous open-air farmers market dating to 1752 — is one of the largest bacon festivals in the U.S., with the crowd stretching in all four directions for blocks from Centre Square. Parade.com in 2018 named it one of the nation's "Top Five Can't-Miss Bacon Festivals," and it has found its way on to Fest300's list of top festivals in the world.

Mr. Thomas attributes its success to the fact that bacon is an American food that people feel patriotic about. Also, "It's smoky, salty, fatty and just hits all your senses and fulfills you when you eat it."

In addition to his stand, he supplies all the bacon the city requires for the event, and also the bacon for Two Rivers Brewing's popular bacon-on-a-stick. This year, attendees could choose between more than 40 flavors, including cinnamon roll and garlic chipotle. For next year's 10th anniversary, when everyone hopes things will be back to normal, he's shooting for 50.

Having so many options, he said, "just blows the door open."

Gretchen McKay: gmckay@post-gazette.com, 142-263-1419 or on Twitter @gtmckay.


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