The quintessential American school lunch of the 1970s and 80s, a bologna sandwich on white bread with mayonnaise (*shudder*) is only American in the sense that it is the very watered-down version of a culinarily superior food first brought to the United Stated by immigrants from the other side of the world.
Though pronounced “baloney” – itself an accepted spelling of the word here in the U.S. – bologna’s proper spelling betrays its obvious etymological origins. I’m of course speaking about the famed salumi of Bologna, Italy: mortadella.
So how did mortadella, the pride of Northern Italy, wind up being processed, pasteurized and whatever the opposite of perfected is, over the course of hundreds of years? How did it get smacked alongside a Kraft single in a nutritionally dubious midday meal for millions of U.S. students everyday? This is the story of bologna – the lunchmeat.
In 17th century Italy, mortadella was big business. During the Middle Ages, roughly a quarter of Bologna’s 10,000 residents were economically involved in mortadella, whether it be raising the hogs who would one day meet their meaty fate, producing the artisanal product itself, or trading the food across the rest of Italy and Europe. Mortadella, for those who don’t know, is an Italian cured meat, usually served cold, made from mixing heat-cured pork and lard with any number of ingredients to form an enormous sausage.
Though we sometimes refer to even authentic mortadella as bologna in the U.S., the actual name is derived from the mortar and pestle that were originally used to grind bits of pistachio and myrtle berries into the pork and lard.
Just how dependent was the region’s livelihood upon the mortadella trade? Well, the Catholic Church even got involved in protecting the golden (pork-based) goose, with the Pope issuing legal definitions and restrictions overseeing its production.
A framed decree from L’Arte dei Salaroli – a sort of governing body made up of artisan charcuterie makers dating all the way back to 1250 – on the wall of Bologna’s Simoni Laboratorio roughly translates to, “If you make fake mortadella without the approval of the Salaroli, your body will be stretched on the rack three times, you will be fined 200 gold coins, and all the food you make will be destroyed.”
Although Italy sent some four million immigrants to U.S. shores between 1880 and 1924, these folks weren’t actually the link connecting Bologna, Italy with bologna sandwiches. Instead, that credit goes to the waves of German immigrants who settled in large swaths of the Midwest, Southeastern Canada (where 95% of Canadian bologna consumption occurs) and especially, Pennsylvania.
Germans brought with them hundreds of years of institutionalized culinary skill, as seen in the form of the pretzel, and culinary appetite, as is the case with mortadella.
The German mortadella eaters of Europe were confronted with the curious opportunity to become German mortadella manufacturers once they settled into their new North American homes. Nobody else was making the stuff here at the time, so someone had to if anyone was going to get the chance to enjoy it.
These new German butchers of Pennsylvania both expanded and diluted the original heritage product, producing what was once chiefly a pork, lard and pistachio-based product from the state’s ample wild turkey populations, along with chicken and beef (and pork when it was accessible). It would have likely taken a good deal of time for L’Arte dei Salaroli to ever even learn about the burgeoning mortadella competitors, let alone try to prevent their production.
Nevertheless, the new improvised take on a centuries-old classic was casually dubbed bologna instead of mortadella.
The invention of the rudimentary delicatessen meat slicer (whose offspring would eventually rob countless restaurant and deli workers of the tips of their fingers) led The New York Times to herald the arrival of the age of the sandwich in a 1924 article that shared the newspaper page with a piece about a woman who drove from Arkansas to California in a record 13 days. The buzzy new fad of slapping some meat and cheese onto sliced bread had arrived just in time…for the Great Depression.
American bologna, cheap to produce in its infinitely adaptable forms, transitioned from a Pennsylvania immigrant community lunchtime meal for farmers and factory workers to what much of the country was eating for dinner several nights a week. A particularly inexpensive version of bologna made from organ meat found great success in grocery stores around this time, giving birth to attitudes about bologna being an unclean food for the poor, that even artisanal mortadella has been unable to shake stateside almost 100 years later.
A classic bologna sandwich — Photo courtesy of Getty Images / DebbiSmirnoff
But it was the happenstance timing of two food-related developments that really sealed bologna’s place in the annals of Americana. In the late 1940s, U.S. food and plastics manufacturers arrived at a shared destination, made possible by the explosive popularity of refrigeration. Prepackaged “fresh” foods hit grocery stores’ new refrigerated sections, promising housewives and mothers a liberation of sorts from the duties of the kitchen.
At the same time, the inaugural National School Lunch Program debuted in 11,000 Northeastern U.S. schools. Riding both sea changes? The humble bologna sandwich. To this day, you can find plastic triangles stuffed with bologna and cheese sandwich halves in gas station coolers.
Perhaps because its history is so tied up in hardship – long boat rides full of worrisome but hopeful immigrants across the choppy Atlantic Ocean, the tension of feeding a family day in and day out in a new country, the actual Great Depression – bologna has carried a sort of distrust and unease with it for many people that celebrated mortadella was never burdened with.
In this way, the ingredients may differ slightly between each of the two cold cuts. But the emotions tied up within the casings alongside the animal protein and lard couldn’t be more different. Italian mortadella is a rich, silky culinary triumph, something to be sought out on decadent European honeymoons and summer holidays. Bologna, on the other hand, is struggle and transition and perseverance.
Up your game with a fried bologna sandwich — Photo courtesy of iStock / LauriPatterson
You need no further proof than this: In the 1980s, bologna was being served in prisons across the United States in such abundance that many prisoners had no choice but to eat it for all three meals a day. About 35 years later, it is still being served in some jails twice a day.
But bologna’s fortunes may finally be rising. Celebrity chefs like David Chang have made compelling cases for thoughtful, artisanal bologna in recent years – bologna as cuisine instead of bologna as comeuppance. Culinary industry trade magazine Nation’s Restaurant News singled the cold cut out in 2018 as a buzzy product that chefs are happily experimenting with.
Bologna may well yet get its star turn, and a chance to shine like its culinary elder sibling, mortadella. Only time will tell if it can stick the landing, but finally, the idea of people ordering it off of the menu of a hip neighborhood restaurant doesn’t sound entirely like a load of baloney.