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Growing up, my grandmother made bologna sandwiches for me the same way wrinkly Italian grandmas made their “AH-secret AH-pasta sauce” in ’80s television commercials.
Nana told me that she used very “special” ingredients to make her sandwich unique, which I later discovered was just packets of sugar mashed into expired margarine from the back of the fridge. It didn’t matter: I was sold. I knew there were so many kids like me, victims of tuna fish and PB & J, who treated their bologna sandwiches with the same adulation most people reserve for the soldiers returning from war.
Throughout the second half of the 20th century, the bologna sandwich was king. Nowadays, it’s rare for anyone to see a pack of bologna outside of the discount cold cut bin at your local depressing grocery store.
On this, National Bologna Day, we thought we’d ask: how did it fall so far?
The story is in the packaging.
The rise and fall of the bologna sandwich
Late 20th century America was not kind to the bologna sandwich. But what a descent it was.
Originating in far bougier form in Italy as mortadella, bologna became popular in America during the Great Depression as a tasty and economical cold cut. It then exploded during the postwar period, when family-friendly “packaged meat loaves” like bologna became the shining star of industrialized farming.
For millions of Americans, bologna was the sandwich meat of choice and Oscar Meyer — with its viciously perky primary color packaging and catatonic jingles — the brand they called family.
There was something so American about the bologna sandwich: stripped of its ethnic origins and assimilated into the bland mass-produced American mainstream. And it was bipartisan, too, a staple at homeless shelters and in American lunchboxes. Both Barbara Bush and Barack Obama were photographed serving it at homeless shelters, back in a time when people put processed meat over party.
Even my parents, who live at opposite ends of the spice spectrum, could sit down to a bologna sandwich without infighting.
Throughout the 1990s, bologna sales fell precipitously at around 1 percent per year, with rare exceptions. Economic recessions sporadically caused mild increases in bologna sales however — apparently, bologna is the processed lunchmeat of choice during hard times.
But everything that made the bologna sandwich a titan among cold cuts contributed to its oily demise.
Nothing gold or pink, it seemed, could stay.
Its greatest strength was its greatest weakness
Mortadella is bologna’s far more expensive Italian ancestor. Both meats are technically supposed to be made out of pork stomach, only mortadella, a fatty pork sausage, is purer: bologna includes such fun additions as carageenans, water and milk proteins.
Mortadella is the meat you bring to the dinner party. Bologna, by contrast, is the cold cut you pack for the sh*tty kids you babysit.
There’s good reason to be skeptical of the meat. Bologna will often include bits of beef or some kind of beef-pork blend. Some brands are 100 percent beef and others are just …
Most of the time, you’re just eating a potpourri of rando meat scraps soaked in recycled warm water.
To mid-century Americans, bologna’s synthetic composition — a product of almighty American industrial capitalism — was precisely what made it so appealing. But by the end of the 20th century, anti-bologna elitist “experts” concerned about “diabetes” and “obesity,” as well as potentially carcinogenic sodium nitrates, helped to bring the iconic cold cut down.
High cuisine become more affordable and accessible. Industrial farming was no longer hot. Pinkish meat scraps were no longer in. Proscuitto was. Sopressata was. Upscale cheeses moved their way into the mainstream. It wasn’t “sexy” any more to eat mystery meats sealed inside airtight plastic package.
Everywhere you looked, Americans were discovering spices and flavor and calling themselves foodies.
God, it was annoying.
By the 2010s, the country had mostly fallen out of love with the creature it gave birth to: mashed up meat derivatives. In 2016, bologna made up just 9.4 percent of all processed lunch meat sales. By contrast, ham was responsible 28 percent of all sales and turkey, which everyone knows is trash, made up 31.2 percent.
Still, some us weren’t quite ready to say goodbye.
Don’t die on us, bologna, now is not your time
Even in 2017, not everyone is willing to give up on bologna. There are still thousands of Americans who purchase the meat from their local grocery store. Fried bologna sandwiches are, of course, forever. And certain high end chefs have begun to reclaim the meat, mixing deep nostalgia with millennial irony and a touch of actual flavor.
Momofuku founder David Chang swears by the cold cut. For Chang, there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with the meat. Americans just aren’t doing it right.
Mortadella is a higher quality cousin of bologna. To make better bologna sandwiches, Chang recommends Americans just … make bologna better.
Chang’s chief problem with American bologna is its girth. Simply by thinning it down, he believes, butchers could restore taste and glory to the cold cut. Lighter cold cuts are simultaneously more flavorful and aesthetically upscale.
Other chefs have taken note. It’s not uncommon to find higher-end restaurants serving upscale fried bologna sandwiches in Brooklyn nowadays. Tater tots, frozen pizza, and mozzarella sticks are all making a semi-ironic comeback.
Not too long ago, you could buy a $64 lasagna in Brooklyn — while wearing your SPAM T-shirt, of course, and downing a $15 cherry coke cocktail.
Perhaps none of this food will ever fully disappear. Bologna may hibernate in times of high snootiness, only to be resurrected in a different era, in a different form, at a higher price.
Screw the jingle. Oscar Meyer doesn’t own bologna. We do.