The jingle is recognizable to anyone who grew up watching television in the 1970s and ’80s. A mop-topped little boy in overalls sits on a pier holding a fishing pole and a sandwich and belts out the lyrics “My ba-lo-ney has a first name, it’s O-s-c-a-r …”
If the goal of advertising is to make people crave something they don’t know they want, then this Oscar Mayer bologna commercial was a smashing success.
Open any lunch box from that era and you’d find a sketchy sandwich with a couple of slices of packaged bologna between white bread slathered with mayonnaise.
But we didn’t know any better, right? It was the age of modern conveniences and processed foods. Bologna — or baloney, as most of us called it — didn’t exactly sell itself. Gray-pink with a mealy texture and a weird rubbery casing, bologna needed the advertising help.
And then it was gone. We all became teenagers and matriculated from the cafeteria to the nearest McDonald’s (“Two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on a sesame seed bun!”).
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What we didn’t know then and what many consumers don’t realize today is that packaged American-style bologna is just a cheap knock-off of the canonical Italian sausage, mortadella.
If you’ve ever traveled to Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region and stared in wonder at the window displays of the ubiquitous food shops in the city of Bologna, you noticed plump tubes of mortadella that are often a foot in diameter and 3 feet long. (And yes, that’s where the American version gets its name.)
Like many classic dishes, the recipe is both simple and complex. Pork meat and fat are finely ground and mixed with salt, pepper and spices. Chunks of pork fat, or lardons, along with pistachio nuts are added to the mixture, which is stuffed into casing and cooked.
Mortadella is thinly sliced and included as part of a charcuterie plate, or used as a sandwich meat or pizza topping. It’s my go-to lunch-meat order, and acceptable versions can be found at most American supermarket deli counters.
Still, American-style bologna is nearby, beckoning to us and pulling the strings of nostalgia from the packaged-lunch-meat aisle. Needless to say, packaged bologna hasn’t changed much since the kid on the pier started singing.
However, with the rise of the artisanal food movement and its cousin, the craft-barbecue movement of the past decade, American-style bologna is making a comeback.
But it’s not entirely a comeback. Smoked bologna has long been a standard dish of Oklahoma-style barbecue, such as it is.
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Barbecue joints in Tulsa and elsewhere buy tubes of higher-quality bologna (known as “chubs”), score and season the outside casing, and cook it in a smoker. It is then cut into thick slices or cubes and crisped on a flat-top griddle.
Now Oklahoma-style smoked bologna is making its way to Houston. Chef Chris Shepherd, who grew up in Tulsa, serves it at his restaurants, for example.
More recently, Gatlin’s BBQ has added a smoked bologna sandwich to its daily specials menu. Owner Greg Gatlin and chef Michelle Wallace make it from scratch — grinding beef and pork, adding spices, stuffing it into a casing and smoking it until thoroughly cooked.
They then cut off thick slices and sear them on a grill, where they get crispy and caramelized. The slices are piled onto Texas toast with a brisket-flavored mayonnaise, caramelized onions, pickles and a fried egg cooked over-easy to maximize the yolk-ooze factor.
The term “sandwich artist” is often misused nowadays, but this sandwich is as close to culinary perfection as you can get. The meaty bologna is matched in richness by the fried egg, with the onions adding sweetness, the pickles adding acidity and the toast adding texture and crunch. And it’s all floating on a slick of brisket mayonnaise.
It’s a long way from the sad sandwich we found in our Scooby-Doo lunch box.
J.C. Reid is the Chronicle’s barbecue columnist. He also is the co-host of BBQ State of Mind, a podcast covering barbecue news from Texas and around the world, and co-founder of the Houston Barbecue Festival. You can follow him on Twitter and Facebook, or send barbecue tips and questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.