How Lunch Became a Pile of Bologna The story of a sandwich staple many people love to hate
We also might shudder at the bologna sandwiches we were forced to eat, with their cold, slippery, overly thick slices. We protest — even riot — over the indignity of consuming bologna. “It’s been inserted into the national psyche of despicable foods, laughable foods,” says Amy Bentley, professor of food studies at New York University. “‘That’s baloney, that’s crazy.’ That’s how we think of it. It’s been embedded in our brains that way.”
It’s a versatile foodstuff: made with pork, beef, chicken, turkey, or any emulsified combination of these so long as the meat scraps are ground (either finely or coarsely) into sausages, then cured like bologna’s Italian antecedent mortadella. Bologna might contain garlic or spices. It might come smoked, pickled, or packaged bearing a first and second name in the refrigerated grocery aisle. It’s cheap and it’s easy and, in many ways, its rise and fall hasechoed social and economic transformationsover the last hundred years. But what is the history of bologna in America — and does it have a future?
The rise of bologna sandwiches in America
Like many culinary traditions now considered quintessentially American, bologna was a product of immigration. Its origins lie in Italy — in the city of Bologna, to be specific — where mortadella has been a beloved sausage meat for millennia. In 1661, mortadella was such a delicacy that “the papacy officially laid down the legal definition” for it,Vice writes, to protect its integrity as a “subtly seasoned delicacy made of lean pork speckled with lumps of lard.” Similar recipes would instead take the name of mortadella’s hometown.
Bologna’s arrival in North America is unclear, but it’s generally associated with German immigration. Some of the strongest bologna traditions hail from regions where German immigrants settled, like the Midwest, Appalachia, and Pennsylvania. Bologna is popular in the South and parts of Canada, too; according toThe Vancouver Sun, “95 percent of Canadian bologna consumption is in Atlantic Canada, half of that in Newfoundland.”
Bologna took on new forms for each region.Serious Eats describesring bologna — often garlicky, smoked, and stuffed into casings — as “the crown jewel of Midwest bologna.” Lebanon, Pennsylvania’s eponymous bologna is more like salami. Newfoundlanders call fried bologna slices “newfie steaks.” In Appalachia, bologna was a breakfast meat and “a savory supper offering, says Victualsauthor Ronni Lundy. And country stores in Appalachian towns formerly kept ropes of pickled bologna in jars, which writer Silas Houseonce eulogized as “an extravagance, an indulgence… a symbol of attainment” for those who had grown up poor.
Sometimes bologna’s regional presence is oddly specific. Jason Falter, the fifth-generation co-owner of small Columbus meatpacking plant Falters Meats, says his company’s bologna sales divide geographically: Northern Ohioans overwhelmingly order German-style bologna, which is a coarser grind in a straight casing, while Southern Ohioans prefer the more finely ground ring bologna. “It’s like we live on a bologna line,” he says.
Bologna was one of themore accessible meats of the early 20th century. It kept well and, most importantly during the Great Depression and the war-rationing era, it was cheap. Made out of discarded or fatty parts of meat, even organ meat in some places, bologna was more affordable than ham or salami. And other meats like turkey and roast beef were not easily produced and therefore less available to consumers, says Jason Falter, co-owner of Falters Meats in Columbus, Ohio.
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