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food How Lunch Became a Pile of Bologna

How we feel about bologna reveals something about ourselves. The history of such seemingly mundane food can be fascinating, as is consideration of its future.

The story of a sandwich staple many people love to hate,BW Folsom/Shutterstock

How we feel about bologna reveals something about ourselves. We reminisce about the sandwiches our parents made — cold slices on white Wonder Bread with mayo, or a thick slice fried until its edges curled, then dressed on a bun with mustard and cheese — tucked inside brown paper bags. We celebrate the meat’s long history with parades, fireworks, and Baby Bologna coronations. We write children’s books and country songs about bologna.

What is the history of bologna in America — and does it have a future?

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 has echoed social and economic transformations over 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 to The Vancouver Sun, "95 percent of Canadian bologna consumption is in Atlantic Canada, half of that in Newfoundland."

Regional varieties

Bologna took on new forms for each region. Serious Eats describes ring 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 Victuals author Ronni Lundy. And country stores in Appalachian towns formerly kept ropes of pickled bologna in jars, which writer Silas House once eulogized as "an extravagance, an indulgence… a symbol of attainment" for those who had grown up poor.

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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 the more 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.

At the same time, sandwiches were gaining vogue. In 1924, the New York Times declared that "[t]he day of sandwiches has arrived" with the invention of meat and bread slicers. Lunch counters like Montreal’s legendary Wilensky’s, open since 1932, offered bologna sandwiches, but mostly people purchased their meat and bread sliced at the grocer or deli, then constructed and ate their bologna sandwiches at home or packed them in lunch pails.

In the mid-20th century, the rise of the packaged food industry transformed bologna sandwiches into a shared cultural experience. Bologna became available on a mass scale as meatpackers began selling packaged and pre-sliced deli meats in supermarkets, an invention that the New York Times extolled as a time saver for homemakers. "It’s a truly industrial product," says Bentley, explaining that packaged foods like bologna took on a cultural cachet as consumers saw those goods as cleaner than meat at the butcher shop.

Around the same time, Wisconsin-based Oscar Mayer introduced its vacuum-sealed packaging, which the company improved upon over the decades that followed. Jean Cowden, who retired as Oscar Mayer’s director of consumer information in 2000, says these inventions gave the company "a tremendous advantage" over meat sliced at the grocery deli that would dry out quickly. These innovations, Oscar Mayer told consumers, made bologna a practical choice.

Oscar Mayer raised bologna’s profile, too. Since the early 1900s, the company had competed regionally against the likes of Armour and Swift. But, by the 1960s, Cowden says Oscar Mayer was ready to expand nationally, beginning with the Oscar Mayer weiner song. "It really was the commercial that took that company to national fame and national distribution," former marketing VP Jerry Ringlien explained in 2007. "But as time went by, it turned out we were selling as much bologna as we were hot dogs." So, in 1973, Oscar Mayer unleashed its famous bologna jinglefeaturing a kid on a dock with a fishing rod in one hand and a bologna sandwich in the other.

Who ate bologna sandwiches?

The bologna sandwich became ubiquitous in school lunches — and not just in brown paper sacks. Schools themselves provided bologna sandwiches and other bologna dishes as part of their early school lunch programs. New York’s Board of Education included bologna as a lunch item in 1963, while schools in the South served bologna cups, which were fried bologna slices molded into cups, with mashed potatoes scooped into the center and topped with cheese.

Bologna sandwiches weren’t just for children. They have long been a cheap way to provide a meal to anyone who has to be fed. Oral histories of the Bracero Program — the migrant farm worker program that ran in the U.S. from 1942 until 1964 — reveal that government administrators turned to bologna to feed the Mexican workers. Bologna is also a staple of food pantry donations; in 1992, First Ladies Barbara Bush and Naina Yeltsin of Russia made dozens of bologna and cheese sandwiches at a Washington, DC soup kitchen.

Bologna and braceros

Henry Pope Anderson’s account of the bracero program in California says that workers often could not eat their bologna sandwiches, since they were such a departure from the Mexican diet: "To most braceros there are at least four things wrong with bologna sandwiches. In the first place, Mexicans are accustomed to hot dishes for lunch. Secondly, many of them are unaccustomed to bread — white bakery bread in particular. Thirdly, they do not like the flavor of bologna. Fourthly, they do not care for foods as dry as these."

San Diego real estate developer Alex Spanos — who launched his careerselling bologna sandwiches to braceros — acknowledges this fact in his autobiography, writing that he soon realized the sandwiches "were not appropriate" and switched to tortillas and rice and beans.

Few have relied on bologna sandwiches more than those in the criminal justice system. The sandwiches have been served in jails for decades in various ways: as cold packs to incarcerated men working in the fields, as one of two meals served in a day, or even as all three meals of the day. It has led to rancor. "It probably makes [the incarcerated] not feel like people," Bentley says, explaining that most people think of dinner as a hot meal. Food riots, in particular, occur when people feel a social contract has been broken. In 1980, inmates at an Ohio jail went on a four-day hunger strike to be allowed hot rather than cold bologna sandwiches. In 2014, inmates of a Missouri jail rioted after being fed only cereal and bologna sandwiches.

Though bologna sandwiches remain common in prison cafeterias, they’ve faced a backlash elsewhere. In the 1980s and 1990s, parents grew concerned about saturated fat and sodium in school lunches. "Fat was becoming synonymous with cholesterol, clogged arteries, heart attacks, and strokes," wrote Michael Moss in his 2013 book Salt Sugar Fat. "This signaled a potentially huge swing in eating habits, and no one worried more about it than Oscar Mayer." The company introduced lower-fat bologna and slashed prices, but by then, other lunch meats like turkey were more easily accessible. "Through the 1990s, bologna sales in general — no matter what manufacturer — fell one percent each year," Moss reports. "[B]y 1995 the annual drop had accelerated to 2.6 percent."

Some grew to resent bologna. Bernie Lewis, co-owner of Ohio’s G&R Tavern, known for its bologna sandwiches, suggests that some dislike its taste and texture, while others might associate it with poverty. Sharon Wilensky, co-owner of Wilensky’s in Montreal, agrees, adding, "It even could be bad memories. They either grew up poor or that’s what their mother gave ‘em for lunch every day. I had peanut butter and jam every day in grade nine and I couldn’t look at it for about 10 years." Bentley notes that the diminishment of bologna might also be about shifting lunch trends toward salads or noodle bowls. "The sandwich is kind of old-fashioned," she says.

Bologna rises again?

But this is no post-mortem for bologna sandwiches. Nostalgia is a fierce emotion, and bologna sandwiches evoke happy memories in as many people as those who find bologna disgusting. Chris Shepherd, chef at Houston’s acclaimed Underbelly, remembers growing up in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where his mother always kept bologna in the fridge for him to eat fried in a sandwich with Miracle Whip. "I’d eat red ring, I’d eat Oscar Mayer. I just like it all," he says.

Bologna saw a minor comeback as the global recession sent people scrambling for cheap meat and comfort food. In November 2009, food trends expert Nancy Kruse told Nation’s Restaurant News that operators were turning to items like bologna to help diners escape the recession — including Hardee’s, which had launched fried bologna biscuits in some of its southern franchises that year. A couple years later, McClatchy Newspapers noted that "[b]ologna sales went up almost 125 percent in June 2009, the year following the start of the current tough economy." Erstwhile supermarket chain Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company even released a "bologna index" that linked spiking sales to the cratering economy.

Business carried on at G&R Tavern, where a smoked, thick-cut bologna sandwich has long been a star of the menu. Once a small-town bar serving bologna sandwiches to local farmers, G&R Tavern is now also a regional and roadside attraction after a 2003 feature on the CBS Sunday Morning report snowballed into more features on the Travel Channel, Chicago Tribune, and more. While the recession did stall things, Lewis says the restaurant was able to keep the price of its bologna sandwich down since bologna itself remained fairly cheap. And now, with the recession fading, Lewis says G&R is seeing its highest sales in a nearly 60-year history, mostly from bologna. "We get people in bib overalls and three-piece suits," Lewis says of his clientele.

Wilensky’s also continues to be a must-stop culinary destination in Montreal. Sharon Wilensky says the salami-and-bologna sandwich has become so popular over the years that they’ve essentially eliminated the rest of the menu.

Momofuku chef David Chang — who visited Wilensky's with Aziz Ansari and Joe Beef chefs David McMillan and Frederic Morin in a 2012 episode of Mind of a Chef — is an advocate for bringing bologna into modern restaurant kitchen, too. Two years ago, Chang used the first installment of his GQ column to call for an embrace of artisanal bologna. "This blows my mind — we have craft doughnuts, beet pickles, beef jerky… but no bologna?" he asked. "This needs to change."

Chefs across the country have indeed been adding bologna to their menus in recent years. Bologna is always on the charcuterie plate at Underbelly, Shepherd says; the restaurant sells 40 to 50 pounds of bologna every two weeks. In St. Paul, chef Adam Eaton put a Wilensky’s-inspired fried bologna sandwich on Saint Dinette’s menu when it opened in 2014. Restaurant manager Laurel Elm calls it "the unsung hero on the menu," selling a couple hundred bologna sandwiches a month. Elm points out that the health concerns that plagued bologna in the late 20th century aren’t a problem; diners today view dining out as a splurge, so a little extra saturated fat won’t deter them from a good sandwich.

But can bologna truly become an artisanal trend? Bentley says she could see that happening just as macaroni and cheese and iceberg lettuce before it. "Food is invented," she says. "We can borrow from other cuisines, or we can have food go in and out of style by elevating it or changing it or calling it something different." Cowden laughs at the way comfort foods have become trendy over the years, but points out that they were always popular anyway, because they are delicious. So, too, with bologna. "From my perspective," she says, "it was just a great-tasting sandwich."

Oscar Mayer, for its part, seems to be banking on a certain hipster notion of nostalgia to keep bologna sales thriving. "The humble bologna sandwich is like a minimalist 1950s chair or a three-chord punk single," declares the brand’s website. "It can be art if made well." But affordability and accessibility — not art — propelled bologna sandwiches to cultural dominance, which the ad recognizes, too, insisting that a bologna sandwich is best enjoyed "[w]ith firefighters, librarians, teachers, and other humble yet marvelous locals."