The Ancient Origins Of The Bologna Sandwich

Love it or hate it, bologna is an American staple. When people think of bologna, the image that comes into mind is pink, slimy slices of unknown meat sandwiched between two slices of bread. While opinions and attitudes on bologna may vary quite a bit from person to person, for many, it's an affordable source of protein. 

The deli meat is a regular feature at lunch for many schools across the country. In the South in particular, bologna is whipped up as fried meat stuffed with mashed potatoes and cheese. Since kids apparently can't get enough of it, bologna also became bite-sized snacks in the form of Lunchables.

Today, it's a lunch meat that kids devour during lunch, but contrary to how bologna is seen in the United States, it's also an exquisite meat delicacy that dates back millennia. Bologna originally hailed from the Italian city of, well, Bologna, and has been enjoyed for over 2,000 years.

Bologna dates back 2,000 years

Bologna is derived from mortadella, a type of Italian sausage. Mortadella is beloved in Italy, especially in the city of Bologna — there's even a food truck festival called MortadellaBò. The meat was so cherished that the Catholic Church created a legal definition for the sausage in 1661. In fact, if a person was caught making and selling fake mortadella, their punishment was pretty severe. "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," meat shop owner Davide Simoni explained to Vice.

It's safe to say bologna, to an extent, is not as cherished in America as it is in Italy. Bologna is believed to be introduced to the United States by the way of German immigrants at some point during the 19th century. The meat was pretty affordable — which made it popular during the Great Depression — but it was also associated with the lower class and the poor. While bologna was having a moment during the early 20th century, the popularity of sandwiches propelled the meat into a cultural institution of American cuisine. One particular company emerged to become one of the main producers of bologna.

How it became an American staple

While the meatpacking company Oscar Mayer was founded in 1883, it didn't find its niche until the early 1920s. The company introduced vacuum-sealed packaging during the 1920s. This packaging allowed deli meats to last longer and saved shoppers a trip to a meat shop as Oscar Mayer was able to sell its bologna in grocery stores.

Soon Oscar Mayer was the face of bologna sandwiches. The company marketed itself pretty well, creating an earworm that was the Oscar Mayer wiener song that aired as a commercial in 1965. That led to another jingle that was released in 1973.

This may sound like baloney, but bologna is once again having a heyday of sorts, according to Eater. David Chang, founder of Momofuku, wrote in GQ that bologna should be the next big thing. "It's a blank canvas of pureed meat, ready for inspiration to take hold," he proclaimed. "You can make it from duck, veal, chicken, pork, beef, and a variety of game. You can smoke it, use different spices, change just about anything about it." Time will tell if an American lunch staple can be transformed into an award-winning dish.