In the Midwest, Great Bologna Is a Way of Life

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Midwesterners aren't kidding around when it comes to bologna. [Photographs: Samara Linnell]

There's baloney and there's bologna. Most of us grew up with the Oscar Mayer stuff, its floppy pink slices sitting limply between slices of Wonder bread. Or, sometimes, we snacked on them straight-up, right from the refrigerator.

But for those of us in the Midwest, there's another bologna, one that originates not from a chain grocery store but from regional, family-run smokehouses and meat markets. Each brand invokes fierce local pride. Massive slices of it fill signature sandwiches in unassuming dive bars. Chunks of ring bologna, accompanied by horseradish and mustard and crackers, adorn platters at potlucks and tailgating parties for a sort of down-home charcuterie platter. Diced bologna makes its way into plain and hearty soups with potatoes and sauerkraut. It's an indelicate delicacy, robust with smoke and spice. In the Heartland, bologna is not a lunchmeat. It's a way of life.

"The problem right now is that there is no such thing as artisanal bologna," said avowed bologna fan David Chang in his GQ column back in March. "This blows my mind—we have craft doughnuts, beet pickles, beef jerky...but no bologna?" Wrong, David, my friend. You just have not been looking in the right places. Legions of Midwesterners, plain and fancy, have savored top-notch, locally-made bologna for years. We won't be stopping anytime soon. You're welcome to join us.

The most famous bologna began in Bologna, Italy—home of mortadella, the lovely sausage studded with pork fat and pale green pistachios. In Italy it's cubed or sliced very thinly and served at room temperature on an antipasto platter. How did that evolve into the very different Midwestern specialty, which never appears on a plate in moderation? It has very little to do with Bologna, Italy, as it turns out, except for its name.

How it Got From There to Here

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Sausages can be so hyper-local that many are named for the towns they originated in. As the people who made those sausages settled in new lands, they adapted familiar foods and embraced new customs. Sausages don't melt, of course, but America's melting pot of the 1800s brought many sausage traditions together.

"One of the most popular and varied types of domestic sausage," says the "bologna" entry in the 1948 The Wise Encyclopedia of Cookery. "Originally, the sausage came from Bologna, Italy, but domestic packagers have wrung a number of changes on the original model."

Most every variant of bologna is an emulsified sausage. While basic sausages are simply ground meat mixed with flavorings and salt, the ingredients in an emulsified sausage are pureed into a paste and carefully mixed so that the fat is suspended in the meat and water, creating a smooth, fine-textured result. Emulsified sausages are often smoked for flavor; this also renders their casings darker. Really great bologna would be a wan poseur without its stint in the smokehouse.

A casual survey of the many types of traditional German sausages reveals a number of emulsified sausages whose flavor and texture isn't too far off from American bologna. Take a frankfurter, or garlicky fleischwurst. And consider the names of these long-established regional American regional sausage makers, all of which produce bologna to be reckoned with: Usinger's Famous Sausage in Milwaukee, Frick's Quality Meats in Missouri, Koegel's in Flint, Michigan. The German immigrants who settled in the Midwest in the 1850s began making the sausages of their homeland. Oscar Mayer was one of those, and his company's innovations in marketing and packaging helped the company grow into the behemoth it is today. But hundreds of smaller meat packagers thrived, and they kept their commitment to old-world methods and quality.

Ring Bologna

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Perhaps the crown jewel of Midwest bologna is ring bologna. Assertive with garlic and a complex blend of dried spices, it's delightfully meaty, especially if you're accustomed to cheap, pre-sliced lunchmeat. A descendant of German ringwurst, it's packed into casings about two and inches in diameter and formed into loops. Ring bologna is most often served sliced on the bias into several-bite nibbles. Every region has its own ring bologna of note. Fully cooked and irresistibly ready-to-eat, it does need refrigeration.

When I was a little girl, my grandfather, a man who knew good cold cuts when he saw them, would organize sprawling family camping trips. He always brought along something he called "trail bologna," and he'd pull out his pocket knife and dole out slices of it to us grandkids. Because of the name, I assumed trail bologna had been created in olden times for snacks on outdoorsy outings--especially since our own campouts included lots of tromping around in the woods.

However, Trail Bologna is called Trail Bologna that because it's made by Troyer's Genuine Trail Bologna in the tiny hamlet of Trail in Ohio's Amish country. It's an all-beef ring bologna.

Kenneth Troyer, president of Troyer's, says that Trail Bologna tastes so good in large part because it doesn't rely on the inexpensive fillers that typify mass-produced bologna. "My great-great grandfather was of German descent, and he started the business in 1912. I'm fourth generation. We steer away from binders like wheat, rice, and corn flours." Two years ago they updated to automated smokehouses, where they use hickory wood to smoke the bologna. While not exactly a low-fat food, Trail Bologna is made with more lean meat than the average bologna, and it comes through in the flavor and pleasingly firm texture.

Troyer's has a retail store in front of the business. "A lot of people come here because we have a niche in the market," Troyer says. "We're like a staple. If anybody talks in the state of Ohio about ring bologna, our name always pops up." Troyer likes to grill Trail Bologna (butterflied, with the casing removed) and serve it on a sandwich. As it turns out, they serve a hot bologna sandwich right there at the store.

Hot Bologna Sandwiches

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A fried bologna sandwich is the ne plus ultra of Midwestern bar food. These are not the kind of bologna sandwiches you slap together at home when energy and funds are low, though the bologna sandwich's prominence as bar and diner food seems to have been cemented during the Great Depression. And a proper fried bologna sandwich is not light on the bologna, and it wouldn't taste the same without some neon lights, decades-old wood paneling, and cheesy jukebox tunes in the background.

Ohio may be the epicenter of the signature bologna sandwich, and the best-known of them can be found at the G&R Tavern in Waldo, a speck of a town about 45 minutes north of Columbus. They've been serving up their fried bologna sandwich for half a century. It starts with a single puck of bologna over an inch thick that's griddled until it's nice and crispy around the edges, and then tops it with Monterey Jack cheese, slices of raw onion, and sweet pickle chips.

Head south to the West Virginia border and you'll find another truly great bologna sandwich in Marietta, my hometown. The Harmar Tavern's "Soon-to-be-Famous" bologna sandwich is, on paper, strikingly similar to G&R's: thick slice of bologna, pickle chips, Monterey Jack. But this is the bologna sandwich that is dearest to my heart, and not just because of its handy proximity. The Harmar's version piles on cool iceburg lettuce leaves and slices of tomato, and they don't skimp on the pickles. It's a surprisingly refined balancing act: the chilly-crisp lettuce, the sweet-tart pickles, the greasy-salty bologna (which they give a quick stint on the grill, so it gets some nice char that's different from griddled bologna). I squirt some yellow mustard on it, too. While it isn't light food, I never feel overstuffed after eating one. To the contrary: washed down with a golden glass of pilsner, it makes me feel like I could take on the world.

Cheffy Bologna Sandwiches

Today, chefs are not afraid to profess their love of good bologna, and there's a new crop of fashionable hot bologna sandwiches emerging. Au Cheval in Chicago makes their bologna in-house (a time-intensive labor of love) for their fried bologna sandwich (at $10.95, it makes the G&R's $3.75 sandwich an especially great deal). Chef Jeremy Fisher told Bon Appetit he'd get death threats if he took it off the menu.

Michael Symon's fancypants burger chain B-Spot's "old-school" bologna sandwich boasts a hefty slab of bologna, while their "new-school" heaps up shaved bologna and serves it with Russian dressing for a Reuben-esque spin. And even the Columbus, Ohio Renaissance Hotel's Latitude 41 restaurant offers a $9 bologna sandwich in celebration of Bologna Day on October 24. In a city packed with greasy bar & grill joints that have been frying up bologna sandwiches for years, a luxury hotel is now proudly joining their ranks.

Beyond Sandwiches

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Cooking with bologna is legit. Rib-sticking sauerkraut soup, beloved in the Midwest, is only half a degree removed from the classic Alsatian choucroute garni when it's made with chunks of good bologna. They add a smoky, cured-meat richness that sets off the tart, salty kraut. It's somehow more refined with bologna than when it features only coarse-textured bratwurst.

And then there's bologna salad, essentially a ham salad-esque sandwich spread made with ground bologna. Most recipes call for mixing ground ring bologna with mayonnaise and pickle relish. It's most often served on slices of white bread, just like the classic lunchbox bologna sandwich. Pickled bologna, another Midwest delight, is simply ring bologna pickled in vinegar with classic pickling spices (like bay leaves, mustard seeds, and coriander seeds) added. The end result is unusual: a puckery, salty, cold snack that's best thought of as a foil for a cold beer. But this twice-preserved food does have a cult following, and it's possible to buy it in jars in the store if you can't be bothered to make it at home.

Any skillet or casserole monstrosity from a 1960s Betty Crocker cookbook can swap bologna in for the franks, though if you're using decent bologna, why slum it? You can butterfly and grill a segment of ring bologna and serve it in a bun as a frankfurter on steroids. I fried up a hash of diced ring bologna, potatoes, and cabbage the other night for dinner. Good stuff.

Ever since reconnecting with the new-old craft bologna, I've started to think of it as a luxury item, like Iberian ham or aged cheddar cheese. Not because of its price or availability, but because it's impossible to eat mindlessly. Great bologna demands to be savored. I still eat it straight from the fridge sometimes, but slowly, in small, happy bites.