Ever have one of those days when you’re daydreaming and say to yourself, “Wouldn’t it be fun if…?” You then concoct some harebrained idea, complete with minute details. Most often these absurd ideas go nowhere. However, once in a while, you actually decide to make them happen. Such was the case with me and my bologna testing.
While eating a Wunderbar bologna sandwich one day, I thought, “Wouldn’t it be fun if I did a tasting of all the bologna varieties I can buy locally to see which is the best?” I dreamed of putting my beloved Wunderbar alongside Boar’s Head and Oscar Meyer and whatever else I could find. Of course, Wunderbar would come out the winner in a blind taste test of sandwiches on Wonder bread. Obviously, it had to be Wonder bread, because that’s the traditional bread of the 1950s housewife, which was the setting of my daydream.
Bologna is one of those “foods” that I don’t eat often. I don’t think I ever fed it to Louise when she was young, and my husband steers away from it like the plague. (I suspect it holds bad childhood memories for him.) Occasionally, if money is tight, I’ll buy half a pound of $3.99/lb. Wunderbar and have it for lunch for a few days. I’ll only eat it with Hellmann’s mayonnaise, which is probably a holdover from my father’s love of the condiment. Mustard? Never! You make a bologna sandwich with mustard and you can’t taste the bologna (which may be the point). The only other way I’ll eat bologna is rolled up around a pickle as a late night snack. However, that’s only really good if you’ve tied one on and need a salty, fatty snack to prevent a hangover. Not that I ever do that, you understand. But I digress…
Thus armed with misguided inspiration, I set out to find the “best” bologna on the market. Of course, “best” is subjective to one’s taste buds. I was totally biased before I even began, but was determined to keep an open mind. I went to two local grocery stores and got 11 different kinds of the lunch meat. I passed right over the chicken and turkey flavors, opting instead for the meat and beef varieties. I know that bologna contains all the scraps from the butchering process, but somehow eating cow and pig hoof is more palatable than chicken lips and toenails. To me. Remember, this is a subjective thing.
Let me explain what bologna actually is. Dictionary.com defines bologna as “a large seasoned sausage made of finely ground meat, usually beef and pork, that has been cooked and smoked.” That’s the sanitized version. It’s really all the bits of leftover animal, such as offal, trimmings, tail, skin, ligaments, tendons, small bones, and head (including eyes, ears, tongue, etc.), finely ground and mixed with salt, sugar and nitrites (which are known carcinogens) or other preservatives, extra fat and water. This slurry is poured into a casing, traditionally the intestine of an animal. Commercially, however, the casing can be made from paper or plastic. Then the bologna is boiled and/or smoked. Then, to add insult to injury, according to SixWise.com, “In August 2006, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved six viruses as a food additive to be sprayed on cold cuts and packaged deli meats. The viruses are intended to protect against the food-borne-bacteria Listeria monocytogenes that is sometimes found on cold, packaged meat products.” Viruses sprayed on food to keep you from getting sick. Hmm. Makes me wonder…
I can hear you saying, “Why would you CONSIDER eating that?” What can I say – I’m a slave to my tastebuds. The stuff tastes good!
Blocking the reality of bologna out of my mind, I went to my local grocery store and looked at the prepackaged lunch meats. I decided to go with one prepackaged variety, the standard bearer Oscar Mayer, and one prepackaged vegan variety, which most people would say is nothing like bologna (I agree). The rest of my samples would come from the deli counter. I bought 6 thin slices of each kind, which I’m sure drove the slicer guy with the tribal tattooes and ear plugs crazy. However, once I explained that I was writing a blog, he smiled a conspiratorial smile and filled my order without comment. I think he thought my eccentricity was just odd enough to be acceptable.
The varieties I settled on were:
Oscar Mayer Meat and Beef (yes, I know I spelled “Meyer” wrong in the pictures…)
Boar’s Head Lo-Salt, Beef and Meat
Thus armed with well over 1.5 pounds of meat product and faux meat product, I went to buy bread. I couldn’t do the Wonder Bread. No matter how many times I looked at the puffy loaf in the happy packaging, I couldn’t bring myself to double the culinary insult and buy white bread. So I settled on Wonder Light Wheat, which has the traditional puff factor, but also has 2.5 grams of fiber per slice.
Sneaking away to the safety of my own kitchen, far away from the prying eyes of the nutrition police, I sliced 6 slices of bread in half. On each slice, I spread a thin layer of Hellmann’s and topped it with a slice or two of bologna. I cut the half in half and closed it, thus creating a sandwich that looked like a quarter slice of bread. Then I created a spreadsheet to record my observations, got a glass of water to wash away each sample (thus preserving the scientific integrity of the study) and sat down to taste.
Oscar Mayer bologna is the standard bearer for processed meat products. The company has been around since 1883, when the Mayer Brothers Oscar and Gottfried started it in a Chicago suburb. The two flavors I tested were meat and beef.
The meat bologna tasted like … well… bologna. It is what I expected it to be. A springy, reddish slice of something. It doesn’t really have a meat flavor; it’s more like a vaguely animal-based-salty-fatty-goodness flavor. You can taste that there’s meat in there, but it, along with SPAM, defines the whole concept of mystery meat.
The Oscar Mayer beef bologna was truly disturbing. It had the same salt and fat punch of its meat brother, but it was spongy and had a liver flavor. (I think I know which one gets the offal.) To make it an even more disconcerting experience, this bologna was lighter in color, which begs the question: How did they DO that?
LightLife’s bologna-style lunch “meat”, marketed under the Smart Deli brand is odd at best. It is reddish-brown (the darkest of the varieties I tested), and has a spongy, bologna-like texture. However, it tastes nothing like bologna. It tastes nothing like anything I’ve ever tasted. It tastes fake. It has an artificial smokiness to it that is disturbing. This product is good for vegans who miss eating meat. It has the right chew factor. Just don’t expect it to taste anything like real bologna, because this is a classic case of a marketing faux pas. (I shouldn’t be surprised at that, because the parent company of LightLife is ConAgra, known for Frankenfood and dishonest practices.)
Lebanon Bologna is called bologna, and is the only bologna that adheres to the dictionary definition of the word. Finely ground meat with visible chunks of fat that has been smoked. Yes! You can actually SEE what this product is made from. It is named after Lebanon, PA (where they lower a 150-lb. stick of the stuff on New Year’s Eve), and has its origin in the Pennsylvania Dutch community. Their efforts to recreate the smoked sausages of Eastern Europe resulted in a tangy, smoky, dry product that is more like mild salami than bologna. I LOVED this bologna. The only brand of this I could find was Boar’s Head. I’d love to try a regional version.
The Boar’s Head brand sells itself as offering “superior quality delicatessen meats”. The company got its start in Brooklyn, NY in 1905. Frank Brunckhorst wasn’t happy with the hams that he could buy so he started a factory with 3 employees. Since the Upton Sinclair book “The Jungle” came out the same year, I have no doubt that this company was started because of the disgusting conditions in other factories. No wonder Brunckhorst was dissatisfied! After 107 years, Boar’s Head products are the most expensive on the market, but not really the best. All 3 varieties I tasted had the same pleasant chewy texture. They also had the same saltiness, with no discernible difference in taste between meat and beef versions. The lo-salt version had NO flavor, which is interesting. It was just there in my sandwich, begging for something to make it interesting. I refused to help it and moved on.
Finally I arrived at Wunderbar German bologna. Ah, my favorite. Imagine my surprise when I took a bite and realized it tastes like all the others I had tried, only a tad sweeter. Upon further research, I discovered that it contains twice the sugar of all the other bolognas! Bummer. My dream of having the ultimate bologna was shattered.
Then came olive loaf. What is olive loaf? Bologna studded with green olives in rectangular, not circular shape. It has a cousin, P&P loaf (which stands for Pickles and Pimientos). Both are in the margins of the bologna field, and are great if one is looking for something different yet familiar. The one I tasted had a chewy texture, not unlike the Boar’s Head varieties, and a salty olive punch. This product actually tastes like something! WOOHOO!
I saved the original for last. Mortadella is THE king of bologna, having been invented in Bologna, Italy by the ancient Romans. It was called farcimen mirtatum, or myrtle sausage, because it was flavored with myrtle berries. Mortadella Bologna has a Protected Geographical Status under EU law, in place to protect regional food integrity. It can contain pistachios, peppers, pounded garlic, olives or peppercorns, and is popular all over the world. The brand I bought was Carando, made in the USA. It had large chunks of fat and was studded with pistachios. It was salty and delicious and I liked it better than any of the others I tried.
My conclusion is that all bologna is basically the same. There are slight variations in texture, saltiness and sweetness. I liked the chewier versions better, and those with more salt were the best. The worst I tried was the Oscar Mayer beef bologna, due to its spongy, liver qualities (I kept thinking about bovine spongiform encephalopathy while I ate it), and the best I tried were the mortadella studded with pistachios and the Lebanon bologna. The olive loaf came in a close second. However, most bologna isn’t worth the fat, calories and sodium. It’s a boring food product. Have a piece of chocolate cake instead.
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