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Bologna, a classic lunch meat, has a rich history originating in Italy, fed the Roman army, and helped people during tough times like the Great Depression and World War II.

Why Bologna Is Special

Many of us have fond memories of growing up eating simple foods such as hot dogs and bologna sandwiches.

Although bologna has fallen out of favor in recent years and it’s not a refrigerator staple in most homes, there are still many reasons to love this classic lunch meat.

Did you know that bologna has a rich and storied history and that it has been around for thousands of years? We can all thank our immigrant ancestors for bringing bologna with them when they immigrated to the United States with their families.

There are many reasons why bologna is special. Let’s dive in and learn more about this classic lunch meat.

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1. The first bologna wasn’t called bologna.

The first bologna originated in Italy and is still made there. Italians call their bologna mortadella. The making and eating of mortadella is a beloved Italian tradition, and it has been one of Italy’s most popular meats for thousands of years.

The name “mortadella” derives from the mortar and pestle that was used to grind up myrtle berries and pistachio nuts into the lard and pork.

2. Bologna is named after the city where it originated.

The bologna we know today is nothing like the original bologna (mortadella), which was first made in Bologna, Italy.

The making of mortadella was a big business in Italy in the 1600s. In fact, in the Middle Ages, about 25% of the people who lived in Bologna were somehow financially involved in the making or distributing of mortadella. It may have been raising the hogs, crafting the mortadella, or selling and serving it.

3. Bologna in the United States has roots in two countries.

Immigrants to the U.S. from Italy and Germany brought bologna with them. Italian bologna is called mortadella, and American bologna has become nearly unrecognizable when compared to its Italian ancestor.

German bologna is usually made with pork and beef, not chicken parts. It was German immigrants who first started making mortadella in the U.S. When they settled in Pennsylvania, they realized that no one else was producing mortadella, and they seized the opportunity, using the plentiful turkeys that abound in the region.

A German immigrant named Oskar Ferdinand Mayer later created a company called Oscar Meyer, and the rest, as they say, is bologna history.

4. You could have been seriously hurt and fined for making “fake” bologna in Italy.

The production of mortadella was so serious in Italy that the Pope in 1661 got involved by issuing restrictions and legal definitions regarding the product. In Bologna’s Simoni Laboratorio, there is a framed decree from a governing body called L’Arte dei Salaroli that translates roughly to this:

“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.”

L’Arte dei Salaroli has been in existance since 1250 and is made up of charcuterie artisans.

5. This humble lunch meat fed the Roman army.

Stone tablets from the Middle Ages prove that mortadella fed the vast Roman army more than 2,000 years ago.

6. Bologna started becoming popular during the Great Depression and World War II.

In the 1930s, the Great Depression hit the U.S, and people started literally starving. Bologna was affordable, and it was much easier to feed a family with this meat than it was with salami or sausage. In some households, families would eat bologna sandwiches for lunch, then have fried bologna for dinner.

During World War II, many foods were rationed. At the time, it was less common to see lunch meat such as turkey or roast beef because turkeys and cows weren’t processed as easily as hogs.

7. The New York Times once called bologna a “truly industrial product.”

The beloved institution known as the New York Times first mentioned bologna in 1924 when they reported that the “day of sandwiches” had arrived.

Around that same time, sandwiches became increasingly popular. The first restaurant to serve a sandwich was Wilensky’s in Montreal, Canada.

Later, the New York Times invoked bologna’s name again, calling it a “truly industrial product” (with a growing number of brands and recipes!).

8. The humble bologna sandwich helped America to grow by feeding migrant workers.

During the middle of the 20th century, the U.S. government used bologna sandwiches to feed the waves of migrant workers who helped produce America’s food. 

The great thing about a bologna sandwich is that not only is it affordable, but it’s also hugely portable and goes well with all sorts of condiments

9. Bologna helped people make ends meet during the 2009 recession.

Between 2008 and 2009, the U.S. was in a recession that made people all over the country struggle financially. One way they managed to get by was by eating more bologna.

For the first time in decades, bologna was once again a best-selling lunch meat, with sales surging nearly 125% in June 2009. 

During this time, the Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company released the dubiously named “bologna index” that linked increased supermarket sales to the poor economy.

The Hardee’s restaurant chain even started selling fried bologna biscuits. 

10. Celebrity chefs are fighting to bring bologna back to the modern kitchen.

In the last few years, bologna has started to become somewhat popular again, and it seems to be thanks to celebrity chefs, including the likes of David Chang and Anthony Bourdain. 

David Chang even goes as far as to suggest that the humble bologna sandwich made with artisanal bologna may be the next big thing.

Chang points out that you can do so much with bologna and make bologna with nearly any type of meat, including wild game. 

At a Philadelphia restaurant called The Dutch, chefs serve bologna eggs Benedict made with chipped beef and ring bologna.

Meanwhile, Minneapolis’s Tamarack Tap Room offers a bologna sandwich with an artisanal makeover. 

11. There are at least 8 different types of bologna.

In addition to the classic bologna that most of us grew up eating, there are seven other main types of bologna.

  • German bologna: Made with finely ground pork and beef, with seasonings such as garlic
  • Halal or kosher bologna: Made just like classic bologna, but without pork
  • Lebanon bologna: Made with aged beef and spices such as mace, black pepper, and nutmeg; named after the county of Lebanon in Pennsylvania, U.S.
  • Lauantaimakkara: Finnish bologna made with beef, pork, potato flour, pork rind, and seasonings
  • Rag bologna: Tennessee, USA bologna made with cuts of pork and beef, soy protein, flour, whey powder, lard, powdered milk, sugar, spices, salt, and curing agents
  • Ring bologna: Usually mostly beef, with a firmer texture than the well-known classic bologna, which originated in the American Midwest and is formed by forming the bologna mixture into a ring before stuffing it into the casing
  • Polony: Bologna in the U.K., usually packaged differently than American bologna but tastes similar

FAQs about Bologna

Below, we answer some of the most common questions about bologna.

Why is bologna such a famous lunch meat?

Bologna became famous as lunch meat because it was an affordable protein source during the Great Depression and rationing during the World War II era. Moreover, bologna was popular lunch meat for kids during the 1960s through the early 1980s.

However, the beloved and catchy Oscar Mayer song really made everyone notice bologna.

Why is bologna so cheap?

Even in the modern era, a bologna sandwich can be made for about $0.34 cents. In its early days, centuries ago, bologna was a delicacy. However, industrial advances have made bologna more affordable.
The main reason why bologna is so cheap is that the cheaper versions are made with mechanically separated chicken parts instead of beef.

Further, the USDA explains that the skeletal muscles and bones of chickens are crushed and fed through a sieve to create a product with a batter-like consistency.

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