In the first installment of his column for GQ, chef and Momofuku founder David Chang swung for the millennial fences in predicting the age of artisanal bologna, the very American lunchmeat. Some two years later, it seems like he whiffed. Such a product, if it exists outside of residual Old World Midwestern butchery, has yet to conquer Whole Foods’ shelves. Maybe the US Food Safety rule requiring homegrown cooked sausage to be emulsified—pureed into a paste, not marbled like its famous Italian counterparts—is the culprit: meat pastes of any sort seem to belie the whole rustic food thing, since knowing/seeing thy food is rather central to the artisan movement. Or maybe, for at least one or two generations of American, bologna means nothing but Oscar Mayer bologna and the utter apex of packaged food that is Lunchables. Bologna just might be so married to the plastic school lunchroom air that its culinary cousins have disowned it.
If you were born after the mid-eighties in the archetypical American suburb and your parents were less than tyrannical, chances are you’ve tried at least one glorious yellow box of Lunchables. It may well have been the best day of grade school: friends looked longingly at your sugary drink, drywall crackers, and tiny rounds of meat, ashamed of their regular-sized PB&J with the spongy white bread. Nowadays, as you ferment biodynamic kohlrabi and behead your own pasture-raised chickens, or at least pack your own sandwich, Lunchables are a corporate evil you either reject wholeheartedly or embrace only for nostalgia’s sake. But rest assured, that box of Lunchables, or its granddaddy, the bologna sandwich, is evocative of the real food you now eat—the real food Chang is soliciting—even if it no longer has anything to do with it.
Conceived in a boardroom in 1985, Lunchables started as a marketing ploy devised by The Oscar Mayer Company to pick up falling bologna sales. At the time, red meat was more or less synonymous with death, and the American mothers who did most of the bologna-buying were doing less of it. Instead of tackling these health problems head on, the folks at Oscar Mayer decided to address an altogether different issue and sidestep the problem: focus groups showed that overstressed mothers were more concerned with time than anything else. So good ol’ Uncle Oscar decided to take care of lunch for them, curating bite-sized helpings of perfectly circular pink meat, crackers, which stayed fresh on supermarket shelves, and all the salt, sugar, and fat a small human could want. Served in a tray somewhat like a TV dinner or bento box, Lunchables were fun, and importantly, they were an acceptable excuse for kids to eat crap for lunch. For mothers, they were just a petite facsimile of the ubiquitous bologna sandwich without the work. Sales immediately took off, and Lunchables has since expanded into territory far-flung from the basic bologna sandwich, with flavors like Nacho Cheese Dip & Salsa and Deep Dish Pizza with Pepperoni. The bologna industry was saved, but only inasmuch as its soul was sold to its yellow cardboard sarcophagus.
Traditional American bologna—a real thing, by the way—is only sullied by the vagueness of its name. As Chang points out, bologna is a blank slate with no true specifications, no centuries-long tradition pinning it down, and perhaps most significantly, no locale to claim it.. Bologna as we know it descends from mortadella, a marbled pork sausage from Bologna, Italy with pistachios and visible lard, sliced very thin. Thanks to Bolognesi local pride, its home country blueprint has stayed much the same. Simmering in the so-called melting pot of the United States for over a century, however, mortadella met immigrant sausages from thousands of other European locales, each with their own name and makeup—German varieties in particular, such as the fleischwurst or frankfurter, were often of the emulsified variety. Mortadella bred with some German sausages and local ingredients and bologna was born, a mystery meat thing claiming a bastardized Italian name for a mostly German product packaged by mostly German immigrants. Whereas in central Europe, neighboring towns each have their own namesake meat, American butchers adopted the term bologna for any emulsified sausage from any town made with any combination of ingredients or traditional influences.
Enter immigrant Oscar F. Mayer from Kösingen, Württemberg by way of Detroit, who built a wiener empire in Chicago in the early twentieth century, at first to serve his German brethren some home country food. In its early days, Oscar Mayer’s company was so fundamentally German that its storefront sponsored the nation’s exhibition at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, serving the same artisanal sausages and Westphalian hams that today’s cultured eaters like Chang would appreciate. But Mayer was a masterful marketer, and his legacy of advertising innovation eventually turned his little wiener operation into a proper American powerhouse. Calling his product, ‘Edelweiss’ in 1906 (and inspiring Christopher Plummer in The Sound of Music, obviously), Mayer was the first meatpacker to hold himself accountable for his fare, even volunteering for the new federal meat inspection programme. At the time, buying from a trusted butcher was the only way to make sure your sausage wasn’t made of sawdust. In the grandest irony, it was actually the same species of foodies that today shun vacuum-sealed bologna—gourmands who wanted to know where their food came from—that supported Oscar Mayer at the beginning. But from then on it was a short few steps to pre-sliced bacon, yellow bands around every wiener, and the undeniably ridiculous Wienermobile. Suddenly everyone was singing about B-O-L-O-G-N-A, which, before long, included mechanically separated chicken, corn syrup, and many a preservative.
For many Americans, the word bologna was and still is Oscar Mayer bologna, the butt end of a joke in the age of Michael Pollan and real food. With Oscar Mayer’s Lunchables, bologna became the absolute antithesis of the Old World artisanship that first birthed American sausages, an obnoxious yellow coffin for what was once an American food and is today nothing more than an American product. Perhaps this is why David Chang encourages chefs to look to Italian mortadella in rebuilding the sacred bologna name, circumventing old school American mystery meat altogether. Still, is Chang avoiding what defines a homegrown food? Mortadella, fleischwurst, and countless other local sausages the world over grew up in their specific towns based on a slow creative process, citizens morphing available ingredients into a practical and tasty food, preserved for the sake of memory and connection to history and well, taste. Is there really such a thing as American bologna without the history attached to it—the comingling of immigrant cultures, the corporate behemoth, the unbearably catchy jingles, the busy American twentieth-century mothers, the lunchroom nostalgia, or the Lunchables?
Lucky Peach, the publishing arm of Chang’s food empire, recently released ‘The Lunchables Power Ranking,’ measuring the boxed lunch on two intersecting scales: from ‘tastes bad’ to ‘tastes less bad’ and from ‘bad for you’ to ‘less bad for you.’ Similar articles do the same for such other proletarian and gastronomically challenged categories as instant ramen, Costco food court, and Disneyland, all of which have a place in a foodie magazine inasmuch as they eschew the self-satisfied fanciness of artisanal products and replace it with an overwhelmingly American brand of nostalgia. Maybe the future of actual American food is reconciling our playful suburban nostalgia with our newfound concern for quality, embracing our complicated history and the bizarre yellow lunchboxes we once loved. Maybe it is, after all, bologna.