Hold it. That didn’t come out quite right. “Aw, baloney!” sounds like some Baptist-approved G-rated somewhat powerless expletive. Not what I meant! Nope. Shoulda been, “Ahhhhhhh, bologna!” There. Much, much better. Just those one and half words make all the difference. They are the Yellow Mustard Road to the Land of Lunchmeat. And we are absolutely off to see the Wizard. Of course, you know this wizard, one famous bologna name. I will say it now with magnified reverence. Pausing for effect. This man is the Daniel Boone of Bologna. The Christopher Columbus of Cold Cuts. Dang it! I wanted to get Davy Crockett in there, too. Oh, why not? The Davy Crockett of Cheap Chow. Yes, he is none other than Oscar Mayer, Sandwich Explorer and Baron of Bologna (no, not Italy), lauded and revered for Americanizing bologna. Thank you, Oscar (let’s all sing his 1976 jingle about our bologna’s name…go ahead, embrace your inner Liza Minelli and let it fly).
I never met Oscar. But I do love bologna. And in truth, I have sliced off and offered more than my share of baloney right here on this blog. Not this time. Nope. This is a high-brow PSA (Public Service Announcement). Like Dan, Chris, and Davy before me, I explored the untamed Chicago-area wilderness in search of a better life. Well, in search of at least a better bologna sandwich. I’m warning you, though, if I do my job here with aplomb, you’re going to want a bologna sandwich. Even if you hate the stuff. You’re going to be surprised at the evolution of the bologna sandwich. And you’ll smile. Or hurl. That’s okay. I write to evoke some feeling, some response. Autoethnographical bologna, right here, right now.
Yes, I am actually writing about bologna. Ah, bologna. The staple of my youth. Mortadella it ain’t. That mysterious pale pink slice of meat-like goodness carefully positioned between two slices of Wonder Bread with just the right amount of bright yellow French’s Mustard. That miraculous treasure inside my Daniel Boone lunchbox, the reward for making it through a half day of school. Ahhhh.
First things first. Bologna vs. baloney. Words. Them again. I love word-wrangling and these two are perfect. They both have multiple very different definitions. How did they come to occasionally mean the same thing, at least here in America? The not-so-simple answer is that “baloney” is the Americanized version of “Bologna.”
But “Bologna,” the city in Italy, pronounced like “lasagna” or so I’m told, is not our beloved super sausage. “Bologna” is the city in Italy; mortadella is the Italian version of what we call “bologna.” Go to Bologna and ask for a bologna sandwich. You’ll get a big “pazzo americano, sei pieno di baloney.” Translated, that means “crazy American, you are full of baloney.” A little patience and a sense of humor might eventually get you a tasty mortadella, not bologna, sandwich.
Around here, “Bologna” is both the city in Italy and lunchmeat. “Baloney” is both lunchmeat and slang for “nonsense,” “idiotic,” “foolish,” and even “dishonest” (hence “The Game of Baloney: Fibbing Fun for the Entire Family”). The slang meaning’s acceptance into the American lexicon is often linked to 1930’s New York Governor Alfred Smith, who apparently liked it using it as a label sort of like “fake news!” It’s also old time boxing jargon for an inferior fighter (think “that fight just had one baloney pounding the other baloney”). Just like “buffalo” and “bison” have different actual meanings but are now used interchangeably, so it is with bologna and baloney. America…the land of the free. Pick your favorite.
Just what is bologna? You probably have some idea. If not, you probably don’t want to know. According to the online Journal Times, “Bologna is a cooked, smoked sausage made of cured beef, cured pork or a mixture of the two. The bologna might include choice cuts, depending on who’s making it, but usually contains afterthoughts of the meat industry – organs, trimmings, end pieces and so on. A typical recipe uses seasonings such as salt, sugar, pepper and spices, plus a curing agent that includes sodium nitrite to prevent food poisoning. The meat is chopped, mixed with the cocktail of seasonings and put it in a casing. Like all sausages, bologna is covered in a natural casing made from the gastrointestinal tracts of cattle, sheep and hogs. Or it’s put in a synthetic casing, which could be made from collagen, fibrous materials or even plastic. Yes, plastic. Is there anything it can’t do? Anyhow, all bologna is cooked and smoked to pasteurize it, so it’s ready to eat upon purchase. The Americanized bologna we all ate when children takes its name from the northern Italian town of Bologna. Our bologna is not the same as their bologna, though. Italian bologna, called mortadella or mortadella bologna, is typically much spicier – and tastes better – than its mass-produced American counterpart.” The Huffington Post agrees, “Mortadella is to bologna as fresh, roasted turkey on Thanksgiving is to sliced turkey lunchmeat.”
Oooooo. Well, at least its name is a little exotic. Can you say Tums? Or my personal favorite, Pepto-Gizmo (you know, that pink wintergreenie stuff perfect for de-bologna-ing any gastro-mishap). As for me, I’ve eaten chocolate-covered crickets, dollar bills, and ladybugs (yes, I can’t seem to turn down triple-dog-dares). In the Marines, of course it was light bulbs, nails, and whatever was in those Marine Corps C-ration cans. Now that was in the early 70’s, with cans dated back to the early 60’s. Mmmm, Beef and Rocks, Shit Disks, and Gorilla Biscuits. Yes, I learned to talk somewhat colorfully in the Marine Corps, but in this case those chocolate-like disks were nicknamed not for their flavor but for their effect. Gotta keep us lean, mean fighting machine Marines regular. So, bologna represents no intestinal challenge for me. I have never felt the need to head for the head after any bologna sandwich. Not once in my 61 years. I hereby pronounce bologna safe. But stay away from the green kind. No guarantees there.
This little mission of mine, slicing off some verbal meat paste onto this post that is, began some two years ago. I picked up Patty from O’Hare Airport one evening and we were hungry. Stopped in Rosemont and ended up choosing Toby Keith’s I Love This Bar & Grill. Hadn’t been there before, but since I love Mr. Keith’s patriotic songs, especially, “Call A Marine,” we went in. I saw something there I had never seen before. On the menu, prominently displayed and described as “Toby’s Favorite,” was a fried bologna sandwich. Kapow. Mine. The picture showed a sandwich so glorious, I wished it was scratch-and-sniff. Patty? Nope. No bologna for her…this time. It was the first time I had seen any kind of bologna sandwich on any restaurant menu as a stand-alone entrée offering. It did not disappoint. It was incredibly delicious. I want the world to know. And the world of bologna sandwiches awaits you. After that description of what it is, I guess I’ll have to triple-dog-dare you to try one. Consider yourself dared.
That Toby Keith Special kickstarted my “who, what, when, where, why, and how,” Indiana University Journalism School training. I became at once a semi-food critic and investigative reporter. Turns out there are several dining establishments here in this culinary mecca of Chicago offering versions of this long-neglected, often disrespected sandwich classic. This is more than appropriate, since Oscar Mayer opened his first meat store here in Chicago. And though I still find it hard to believe, I have met people here on the Bologna Boulevard of Life who have never eaten a bologna sandwich. Probably no pinto beans, either. Or turnips. How ‘bout hominy? I’ll deal with these other foods of my people another time.
Ready? Let’s go find some bologna sandwiches. Let me be specific. One day a while ago, Patty was out grabbing some groceries. Knowing I like bologna, she picked up a package of Oscar Mayer All-Beef Bologna. She got an “A” for her typical thoughtfulness and generosity, but, had I been shopping, I’d have chosen the plain old Oscar Mayer Bologna. The mystery meat. The food of the people. That’s my focus. I’ll tell you about the restaurants and their sandwiches, show some photos, and rate them with my trademark 0 to 5 thick-cut slices scores.
Don’t worry. I’m not trying to become the Bourdain of Bologna. We’ll skip all that “cleansing the palette” foofaraw (I was dying to say “baloney” right there!). The only sad part is that a couple of these places have closed recently. Here they are, in no particular order.
Toby Keith’s I Love This Bar & Grill. Rosemont, Illinois.
The Fried Bologna Sandwich (the menu name). There is delicious and then there is surprise delicious. Surprise delicious like the time I returned to Marine Corps Base Hawaii after being home on leave. Waiting for me there was a Milky Way cake my mom made for me. Surprise: Cake in the mail. Delicious: My first Milky Way cake, which became my all-time favorite cake. Double good. I was surprised to find a fried bologna sandwich on the menu and then I found it absolutely delicious. Double good. Nothing fancy, “Toby’s Favorite” was just a big pile of thick-cut fried bologna with onions, American cheese, and genuine Miracle Whip dressing on grilled garlic toast. Krystal Keith, Toby’s daughter, offered this, “It has always been my dad’s favorite sandwich, therefore naturally was going to be a feature on the menu at his restaurant chain,” she adds. “This isn’t your typical bologna sandwich. This griddle creation tops the list as the most ordered menu item at each and every I Love This Bar & Grill location.
You’re gettin’ the original…straight from the horse’s mouth!” So sad this restaurant and maybe the entire chain has closed. I would have had many a fried bologna sandwich here. On a happy note, Krystal Keith has placed the recipe online. Give it a little Goog. A frontrunner for sure. In memoriam, 5 thick-cut slices. Come back Toby.
Fulla Bologna Old World Delicatessen. Elmhurst, Illinois.
#8 Fulla Bologna Sandwich. This one is delicious, not surprise delicious, because of the restaurant’s obvious name, but very delicious. And this place in fun downtown Elmhurst is still around. It’s a traditional deli with a very full menu but limited hours, closing around 2 pm most days. I’ve been back several times. Their unique contribution is a generous pile of fried veal bologna, pepper jack cheese, and chipotle mayonnaise, giving this one some punch. A current favorite. 5 thick-cut slices.
Super Submarine. Hammond, Indiana.
Bologna Submarine Sandwich. My hometown place has been around for at least 50 years, no exaggeration. And I’ve been buying their submarine sandwiches since I was 16. They heap meat on their sandwiches. A lot of meat. If the meat on a typical Subway sandwich is a marble; the meat on a typical Super Submarine sandwich is a big ol’ bowling ball. This a unique family-owned sandwich shop to be sure. Now, you probably wouldn’t just wander in there unless you were sent. I’m sending you. Not for the bologna sandwich, though. My favorites here are hot beef, ham & cheese, and barbeque beef. Always with pickles and peppers. The Reuben is great, too. They have many others. All on delicious Vienna bread. Their bologna-only sandwich is just okay. Lots of un-fried bologna for sure, great bread, and you can add mustard and/or mayo. Here, I’ll stick to hot beef, pickles and peppers, please. Oh. They only take cash. Though it greatly pains me to say anything bad about Super Submarine, I give their bologna sandwich just 2-1/2 thick-cut slices.
Boloney’s Sandwich Shop. Barrington, Illinois.
Bologna Sandwich. That’s it. Unpretentious. Something of a surprise for Barrington. Bologna sandwich. You pick everything…what kind of bread, cold bologna, fried bologna, condiments…a true custom bologna sandwich. But another sad tale. Boloney’s Sandwich Shop recently closed after 36 years and reopened as Showtime Eatery. No bologna. Too bad. This one was a contender. In memoriam, 4 thick-cut slices.
Sam & Harry’s. Schaumburg, Illinois.
Fried Bologna Sandwich. At least you get fries with this gourmet offering. I’ve tried this one twice. The second time was better, because a large group of Escape Room conferees from the attached Renaissance Schaumburg hotel piled into the restaurant. Entertaining. I didn’t even know what an “escape room” was, let alone you could go to a weekend conference about them. Sam & Harry’s is an upscale establishment, and they’ve raised the humble bologna sandwich to a new level…$14. You get house-made black truffle bologna, American cheese, sundried tomato mayo, and caramelized onions. I no likey the black truffle bologna. Yuck. I almost headed for the Pepto-Gizmo after this one. 0 slices.
Au Cheval Diner. Chicago, Illinois.
Fried House-Made Bologna Sandwich. Au Cheval is a hipster diner in the city. Interesting place…their limited menu includes everything from bologna to roasted marrow bones to foie gras to cheeseburgers. They have a very cool interior look with an even more cool vintage reel-to-reel tape sound system. And they seem to always have a line out the door. To get in, I had to look the part of course, me being the master of disguise and all. Didn’t want to be conspicuous. Chicago Magazine named this sandwich number two on their 2012 Best Sandwiches” list. Eater Chicago named it number one. Whoa. “Thought your bologna-eating days had retired with your lunchbox? Luscious house-cured mortadella dotted with black pepper, sliced thin, and piled into layers on a spongy brioche bun should put you right back in the game. No thermos necessary,” Chicago Magazine. Eater Chicago adds, “Like most dishes at Au Cheval, it’s a gutbuster.” Still, this bologna sandwich is just too hipster-uppity for me. It tastes good, it’s just not the bologna of my people. And it’s so tall I wasn’t sure how to eat it. 3-1/2 thick-cut slices.
Poage Elementary School. Ashland, Kentucky.
Mrs. Joan Boggs’ Bologna Sandwich. No surprise here. Packed with the incredible flavor of nostalgia, my own 1963 bologna sandwich, made and packed in my Daniel Boone lunchbox by my loving mother. Unbeatable. Just Oscar Mayer bologna (not the all-beef kind), Wonder Bread, & French’s Mustard. Ahhhhh. Again, sadly (I’ll be right back. I think I’ll write a country song called “Baloney Blues”), I can today only approximate this sandwich. As I sat down to my carefully re-created lunchbox feast, I was overwhelmed with a sense of old-fashioned goodness that reprogrammed my taste buds back to 1963. Poage School, Ashland, Kentucky, Daniel Boone, bologna, and me. The winner and still champion. Come over and I’ll make you one. You’ll see. 5 thick-cut slices.
Are you hungry now? Have I at least caused a shift in your bologna paradigm? I hope I at least moved your cheese. So, let’s meet for lunch at Fulla Bologna. Their #8 is on me.
Ahhh, bologna. It’s simple and plain. It doesn’t cost much. It is most often made from odds and ends; no wagyu beef in sight. It has no pedigree. It’s not on anyone’s fine foods list. It’s not perfect. It’s just basic sustenance. It gets misunderstood. It is overlooked and maligned by those claiming a finer palette. It does the job. It tastes good. It’s easy to handle. It’s readily available—I think even Menards has bologna. It’s flexible. It can be dressed up and aimed high but most of the time, it’s just bologna. I know, I know. I’m about to find a moral of the bologna story here. I love bologna. I have for many years. In fact, I’m sure you’ll agree that I am full of bologna. It’s a lunchmeat to which I can relate. So again, thank you, Oscar F. Mayer. A true world changer, you Americanized bologna and put a hot dog on wheels.