Whatever happened to good ol' bologna, that most straightforward of lunch meats?
It's still around — and in more varieties than ever.
Sure, it's comfort food, and it makes for cheap meals in a strangled economy. But bologna is also a cultural icon that resonates — like meatloaf, and spaghetti and meatballs — through our collective culinary psyche. As our readers shared with us in droves, bologna triggers fond memories, of childhood and bygone eras, of white bread and mayonnaise.
Familiar as it is, we've all asked ourselves what's really in bologna. But there is so much else worth knowing about it:
Unlike salami, which is cured, bologna is a cooked, processed sausage, a casing filled with finely hashed meat, usually pork or beef. Bologna and hot dogs are siblings.
What's in bologna? It's not all created equal; some makers use higher-grade meats than others. The Department of Agriculture spells out the rules: Bologna "may not contain more than 30 percent fat or no more than 10 percent water, or a combination of 40 percent fat and added water." The USDA allows 3.5 percent nonmeat binders and extenders.
American bologna's precursor is mortadella, first made in the 15th century in Bologna, Italy. Early makers of American bologna — many of them Italian immigrants — tried to create a sausage similar to mortadella but weren't very successful. Despite that, the sausage was named after the hometown of mortadella, the "Italian bologna" in which you often find pistachios, cracked peppercorns, green olives or coriander.
Pop trivia: In the 1971 movie comedy "La Mortadella," Sophia Loren is busted by U.S. customs for trying to smuggle in a whole mortadella.
Americans consume an estimated 800 million pounds of bologna each year, says the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council. Its president, Janet "Queen of Wien" Riley, notes, "Essentially, bologna is a hot dog in a larger casing, served cold. Hot dogs are a staple of the American diet, and bologna is equally classic."
Bologna is still most commonly made from pork, but it has diversified. Consider regular slice, thick slice, low-fat, low-sodium, chicken, turkey, honey-smoked turkey, oven-roasted turkey, beef, light beef, pork and beef, veal and pork, chicken and pork and beef, chicken and turkey and pork ...
And more diversity: Give a try to German, Vienna, kosher, halal and garlic bolognas. Then there's Lebanon bologna, with origins in Lebanon County, Pa. This Germanic sausage is closer to Thuringer in taste, texture and appearance.
Mayonnaise and mustard (ballpark and Dijon) are traditional condiments on bologna sandwiches. For a twist, try Best Foods Sandwich Spread, Durkee Famous Sauce and Hellmann's Dijonnaise. The folks at Durkee say their product is "purported to have been stocked in Mary Todd Lincoln's pantry and served to Abraham Lincoln in the White House during the Civil War."
When America thinks of bologna, it thinks of Oscar Mayer, owned by Kraft Foods. In the early 1900s, the Mayer brothers — Oscar, Gottfried and Max — began making and selling sausages in Chicago. The "Oscar Mayer" name was first printed in 1929, on a package of wieners.
In 1973, Oscar Mayer wowed the nation and boosted bologna sales via a classic TV ad starring 4-year-old Andy Lambros singing the "My bologna has a first name ..." jingle. Former Oscar Mayer vice president of marketing Jerry Ringlien chose the spot from a field of possibilities. For a look at the commercial and an interview with Ringlien, go to www.youtube.com and type in "Oscar Mayer" in the search field.
Oct. 24 is National Bologna Day, on which bologna lovers are encouraged to try recipes featuring bologna (such as bologna bean bustle and bologna biscuits with vegetables). For recipes, log on to www.cooks.com and type "bologna" into the "recipe search" field.