By Dale Phillip
Italy’s mortadella sausage is the granddaddy of our modern bologna, which was made with pork and lots of pork fat. It is found in every self-respecting sausage shop in Italy, and although large meat companies, such as Oscar Meyer, have modified the recipe and call it bologna, the original mortadella can still be found in delicatessens across the U.S. especially in Italian neighborhoods.
“Baloney” is purely an Americanized name for the Italian sausage, and in the early twentieth century it also became a popular word meaning “nonsense” or bogus, as in “that is such baloney.” Quite simply, bologna sausage originated in Bologna, Italy, sometime in the late 1600’s, and its preparation was taken very seriously. Creating mortadella sausage was considered an art form and only a handful of families were allowed the privilege. It was considered a major ration for Roman armies, and Napoleon is purported to have introduced it to France. (At no time did explorer Marco Polo bring it back from China, but he may have eaten it in his native Italy.) It is so revered in Italy that a 1971 film starring Sophia Loren was titled La Mortadella, in which her character tried to smuggle the sausage into the U.S. Those Italians take their sausages seriously.
Immigrants brought it with them in the late 1800’s and set up street carts, small family restaurants and butcher shops, where they sold their beloved sausages, and people of all heritages embraced them. A German immigrant named Oscar Meyer began selling his native sausages in Wisconsin and Chicago, including bratwurst, bacon and wieners at the turn of the century, branching out into more lunch meats, namely bologna, a modified and less complicated version of mortadella. With the invention of sliced white bread (think Wonder), a child’s lunch became simpler, with mom slapping some baloney between two slices of bread, a smear of mayo, and off to school little Johnny went.
While many people frown upon the “mystery meat” sandwich, there is no denying that its popularity has almost a cult following (like Spam,) and don’t try telling a baloney aficionado otherwise. During the Depression, bologna gained strength, as it was considerably less expensive than salami or ham. Often made with leftover parts of meats and heaven knows what else that was tossed into the grinder, it filled up hungry people and kept longer than more perishable sandwich fillings. Ring bologna was often a main course for dinner and tastier than its sliced lunch meat cousin.
Mid-twentieth century, food companies began selling sliced meats in the grocery stores, and the convenience and availability attracted overworked homemakers. No more cooking large meat loaves, baking hams or roasting beef for lunches. Grab a loaf of Wonder Bread, a package of sliced baloney, and you just saved hours of labor in your kitchen. Since mac and cheese had no traveling ability, it was cold cuts for the mass majority.
Although bologna sales began declining in the 1970’s as people reached out for lower-fat and better quality meats, particularly turkey and chicken, baloney is making a comeback, not only for nostalgic reasons but for its price and availability. During a U.S.weak economy between 2007 to 2009, major supermarkets across the country saw a significant rise in bologna sales. In 2016, lunch meats generated a whopping 2.01 billion dollars in U.S. sales. In the Canadian province of Newfoundland, bologna consumption makes up 35% of the entire country. In a fish-based populace, this inexpensive meat is a staple.
Not to be left out is fried baloney for breakfast, or as a hot sandwich on rye. True bologna fans consider it a regular part of their diet, and they’ll give you detailed descriptions on the best way to cook it (buy a whole sausage and slice it thick).
So please don’t disparage this popular sausage. Maybe you don’t have good memories of it, perhaps you ate an inferior brand or you just don’t like the whole idea of processed meats. But this sausage has stood the test of time. It’s pure baloney.
If you ate baloney sandwiches as a kid, raise your hand! While many of us boomers consumed dozens of these sandwiches, both at home and at school (I liked ketchup on mine), there’s no denying that it was part of childhood, just like mac and cheese. Author Dale Phillip remembers many Sunday lunches of ring bologna, which her father loved to buy from a local butcher, who sold his own homemade sausages. Her mother purchased baloney from a local deli which sold premium sausages and salads, and it was delicious. She invites you to read her numerous articles on the history of foods and beverages, and visit her blog at: http://myfriendlyu.blogspot.com/
While baloney sandwiches are no longer a part of her cuisine preferences, this author occasionally gets a hankering for childhood sausages and does indulge. However, now living in Southern California, there is just no duplicating those incredible sausages she grew up on in Chicago.
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