Scores of Americans were once on a first-name basis with bologna. A generation was raised on the sausage's popular commercials and on the meat itself, usually sandwiched simply between two pieces of white bread and a swipe of mustard.
But years of health concerns over a number of factors -- from extremely high sodium and fat contents to the more immediately deadly affair of listeria contamination -- caused the classic lunch meat to take a backseat to its trimmer, more boring companions in the deli meat case: sliced chicken breast or smoked turkey.
Despite promises from big bologna producers like Oscar Mayer that it's reducing sodium content in its lunch meat by 10 percent over the next two years (I am apparently ignorant of the many processes behind mass-producing bologna, because: two years?) and the fact that listeria can crop up in any deli meat you bring home and store in your
cushy listeria hotel refrigerator, bologna's reputation seems to have been tarnished for good.
Have we all but forgotten about the meat that rounded out many of our childhood lunchboxes?
Anecdotal evidence of bologna's decreasing popularity is borne out by retail statistics, too. Randall's has stopped carrying bologna in their delis altogether, and the deli manager at the Midtown location said that she couldn't remember the last time they'd carried the meat.
"It's not as popular as it used to be," says Pablo Valqui, deli and dry foods buyer for the downtown location of Spec's, that sprawling store where you can find nearly any food or beverage no matter how obscure. "What we sell a lot of is German bologna -- and that one is a similar thing to bologna -- and we also have Italian mortadella. We sell it, but we don't have the traditional kind of bologna that you would find in supermarkets."
To demonstrate bologna's waning popularity, he compares sales figures of "regular" bologna versus Italian mortadella over the last two quarters. "We sell maybe a pound a day," of the regular stuff, he says. "Twenty pounds over the last six months."
The mortadella? Valqui says that Spec's sells 60 pounds a month, triple the amount. And even that isn't the deli's best seller by a long shot. What people prefer to buy instead are the German sausages: "The purity of them is probably a big reason for people to prefer those," Valqui says. "Better quality...and image."
Image seems to be the most significant factor holding bologna back.
Right now, it's as if biggest thing the maligned lunch meat has going for it is a certain kitsch appeal, and that only goes so far.
It's as if bologna has become the Spam of the sliced deli meats world. The only acceptable application of Spam in modern cooking? Spam musubi. The only acceptable application of bologna? Fried bologna sandwiches. Both are throwback preparations, as popular for their vintage appeal as for their taste.
Even as recently as 1996, it seems that the only selling point of bologna was its nostalgia factor. The plaintive I Still Like Bologna from Alan Jackson certainly didn't help, especially with these rather mournful lines:
But I still like bologna on white bread / Now and then / And the sound of a whippoorwill / Down a country road
Bologna does seem to be trying to clean up its image, offering a variety of different meats (turkey bologna, all-beef bologna, etc.) and engaging in ad campaigns pointing out that a bologna sandwich has far less sugar than a PB&J. And, clearly, someone out there is still buying bologna: Oscar Mayer claims to sell enough of it to make 2.9 billion bologna sandwiches each year.
One of those someones is Chris Shepherd, the former chef at Catalan who's currently opening his new project, Underbelly, on Westheimer. Shepherd asks for it to be cut an inch-and-a-half thick at the deli, then takes it home and fries it up.
To bologna detractors, he says: "They're nuts. Bologna is delicious." With a laugh, he adds: "The world is dumb." Shepherd even makes old-school, American-style bologna at his restaurants.
And with the art of charcuterie on the rise in America, maybe it's time to take back our bologna. After all, the American classic is based on German and Italian sausages -- fleischwurst and mortadella -- that are still well-respected members of the cured-meat family. Why not make bologna respected again?
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SHOW ME HOW
Shepherd is on board: "I make Lebanon bologna, which is kinda sweet. I make regular bologna. I used to make Catalan Monte Cristos with fried bologna." Customers were often surprised to find the meat on his charcuterie boards, and even more surprised by how good it was.
And he has plans to make bologna at Underbelly, too. "Damn right," he laughs. "It'll be a whipped bologna!"