Father’s Day reminds me of my father, which reminds me of bologna. More on that in a moment.
Speaking of bologna, though, it seems to me that it has become a much maligned meat, and I’m not really sure why. On the other hand, I don’t think I’ve had a slice since Richard Nixon was president, and I don’t know why that is, either. It’s not like I hated bologna. It was sliced ham I didn’t like, at least until my mother got me to try some by telling me it was a kind of bologna. Now I eat ham, but not bologna.
This is how bad has it gotten for bologna:
- The city it is named after, which I’m sure is a very nice, scenic Italian city full of old churches as all Italian cities are, no longer calls it bologna so as to disassociate the metropolis from the meat. If you want bologna in Bologna, you have to ask for mortadella. (And, by the way, my Italian is rusty,* but doesn’t that mean “death to Della?”)
- The company which once gave bologna a first name, O-S-C-A-R, does not even mention the meat on its website.
- It is often spelled the same way as a synonym for bull—t.
Somewhere along the way, bologna seems to have acquired a reputation as sliced mystery meat, almost as if the lunch lady from your high school took a few scoops of…whatever that stuff was…and crammed it into a sausage casing.
But the fact is that, ingredient-wise, most of the packaged bologna sold in the U.S. is really just a big, fat, sliced up hot dog that you eat right from the refrigerator.
What’s so bad about that?
I think it’s just that Americans have gotten too fancy in recent years, even with their everyday foods. You don’t hear about making sandwiches with “cold cuts” anymore; people use “deli meats.” It’s gotten so you almost feel uncouth and unhealthy just for enjoying a nice pimiento loaf and American cheese on white bread with mayo sandwich.
My father spent his life driving a refrigerated truck and selling Plymouth Rock and Freirich brand meats to small, independent supermarkets in Manhattan and the Bronx. I’d ride the truck with him when his partner went on vacation, and marvel at all the different products he carried: “spiced luncheon meat,”** “chipped ham,” “olive loaf,” “tongue.” The tongue looked okay in the vacuum-packed version we delivered, but then I saw a whole one sitting unwrapped on a deli counter and it looked like…a tongue. A huge, monstrous, cow’s tongue! I couldn’t even imagine saying “Give me a few slices of that, please.”
Then I’d look in some of the display cases in these stores, and I’d see entire smoked pigs, split in half length-wise head to toe, looking very brown, hollow and leathery. And there’d be all these different smoked pig parts: snouts and ears and knuckles and feet, even the little curly tails. “Everything but the oink,” my father used to say.
But of all the products we carried on the truck, it wasn’t the corned beef or the “chubs” or the different kinds of sausages and wursts and loafs that got my attention. I was most fascinated by the head cheese. My father and I would have some variation of the following conversation every time I rode the truck:
- Me: “Why do we sell head cheese? We don’t sell any other kind of cheese.”
- My Father: “It’s not cheese.”
- Me: “But…”
- My Father: “I don’t know why it’s called cheese. It’s meat. Sort of.”
- Me: “Sort of?”
- My Father: “Trust me. You don’t want to know.”
- Me: “Wait…you’re saying it’s head meat? Actual head?”
- My Father: “That’s the good part.”
- Me: “What’s the bad part?”
- My Father: “The jelly.”
- Me: (Picturing head pieces floating in Welch’s grape jelly) “Jelly?”
- My Father: Well, aspic. It’s a meat jelly. They kind of grind all the head parts together and mix it in with the aspic and form it into loaves and slice it.
- Me: (Gagging sound)
- My Father: We don’t have to eat it. We just have to sell it.
Seriously, we had this discussion over and over. It wasn’t that I couldn’t retain the information, it’s just that I couldn’t believe the information. Maybe I kept bringing it up in the hope that I’d catch some inconsistency in my father’s story that would expose it for the disturbed fantasy I knew it had to be. I mean, nobody would eat something like that, right?
Maybe that’s why I have a soft spot in my heart for bologna, even though I haven’t eaten it in years. Next to head cheese, it’s filet mignon.
Try it grilled in an omelet.
See you soon.
P.S. Knowing I was about to post this, my wife Barbara bought some bologna at the local deli. It’s good!
*Okay, non-existent. **They didn’t even try to call it something; it was just “meat.”