Bite into a bologna sandwich (photo © Francesco DiBartolo | iStock Photo).
National Bologna Day is October 24th.
We haven’t had a bologna sandwich since grade school, when Mom would make one up once a week or so, alternating with a BLT, ham, PB & J or tuna sandwich.
Yet to other people, a bologna sandwich is a culinary staple. Beyond the sandwich, we had a college friend who would snack on bologna and cheese stacked between Ritz crackers, and add bologna strips to her pizza.
Bologna (boe-LOE-nya), also Americanized (unfortunately*) to baloney, is a type of cooked pork sausage that derives from Italian mortadella.
It has been made for at least 500 years in Bologna, the capital of Emilia-Romagna region of Italy.
A sausage mentioned in a document dated 1376, of the official body of meat preservers in Bologna, mentions a sausage that may be mortadella [source].
Traditionally, the pork filling was ground to a paste using a large mortar (mortaio in Italian) and pestle.
Given that “della” means “from the,” the name can reference meat ground from the mortar.
Mortadella by that name has been made in Bologna for more than 500 years.
The recipe includes ground pork studded with cubes of white fat and seasoned with anise, coriander, pepper and pistachio nuts.
According to one source, in 1661, mortadella was such a delicacy that “the papacy officially laid down the legal definition” for it, to protect its integrity as a “subtly seasoned delicacy made of lean pork speckled with lumps of lard.”
American-style bologna is believed to have come to the U.S. with German immigration, which began in the mid-19th century. Some of the strongest bologna traditions hail from regions where German immigrants settled†.
Mortadella came to the U.S. with Italian immigrants. The Great Italian Immigration, as it is called, began in the 1880s [source].
Bologna became broadly available in the early 20th century. It had a good shelf life, and a bologna sandwich could be carried to work, school, or on a trip with no need for refrigeration.
Bologna was a more affordable cold cut than ham or salami, not to mention the even pricier turkey and roast beef.
The key to its low cost was that bologna was made out of typically discarded or fatty parts of meat. (Today, artisan bologna, made from quality cuts of pork and beef, is available.)
Today, U.S. government regulations require bologna to be made without the visible pieces of lard, to distinguish it from mortadella.
U.S. standards allow bologna to be made from beef, chicken, pork, turkey, venison and others (bison, goat, etc.), or from soy protein (vegan bologna).
Nitrates, the preservatives that give cooked pork products a pink color, are used in American bologna and mortadella.
As is typical with sausages, scraps of meat are mixed with spices, then cooked and stuffed into casings (originally made from animal intestines, which are still used in all-natural sausage).
Americans eat 800 million pounds of bologna annually.
Oscar Mayer is the most popular bologna brand thanks to its 1973 jingle “My bologna has a first name….”
*“Baloney” is slang for “nonsense.” It appears to have entered American English around 1922, and was popularized in the 1930s by New York Governor Alfred E. Smith. The original term was used in the mode of “nonsense” or “rubbish,” believed to be a nod to either Irish blarney, or the odds and ends used to make bologna sausage.
BEYOND ITALY: BOLOGNA VARIATIONS IN EUROPE
To make things confusing in the world of bologna, comparisons differ widely by country:
Germany & Austria
Bologna can be pan-fried with morning eggs, added to potato salad or combined with other loaf meats and cheese, pickles and olives for an “Italian deli” sandwich.
Here’s a recipe for a Frenchie, a battered and fried grilled cheese sandwich with cheddar and bologna. Serve with a side of pickles and olives.
†German immigrants created strongholds in Appalachia, the Midwest and Pennsylvania.
 Bologna can be made from proteins other than pork. Here, it’s made with beef. Photo courtesy GrasslandBeef.com.