It's been ages since I've eaten Baloney - or Bologna sausage. Yet the other day in the supermarket, I suddenly realized that the cold-cut aisle was filled with pink food! Ham, salami, liverwurst - it's all pink! But by far, the smoothest pink in the deli-case is bologna.
Bologna is made of finely ground meat flavored with spices. The traditional Italian version is usually pork, but in the U.S. you can find bologna made with chicken or turkey, also Kosher bologna made with beef. USDA regulations allow manufacturers to add binders and fillers like cereal and milk solids. Since it can be made from cheap cuts of pork, it's very economical.
We're probably all most familiar with good old American brand-name bologna. This costs about $3.00 per pound.
Its stodgy pinkness and its bland, slightly smoky flavor matches perfectly with white sandwich bread, mayonnaise, and a slither of bright yellow French's mustard, for the non-adventurous eater. Since bologna is a cured product it can safely sit in a lunchbox in a school locker for a couple of hours, sealed in a baggie, along with a snack-pack of chips, a Thermos of milk, and a couple of cookies.
Many fine delis stock kosher bologna, made of beef. One commonly seen brand is Hebrew National. This bologna is a deeper, richer pink than the Oscar Mayer brand, and has a coarser grind, giving it a little more texture and variation.
I wondered, is there such a thing as a high end version of bologna? An artisanal bologna? "Gourmet bologna?"
The closest you could get to this is Bologna's more sophisticated cousin, Italian mortadella. This has white cubes of lard and green pistachios added to the pink porky paste, making a rather prettier cold cut when sliced - if you can get your mind around thinking lard can be pretty.
I got some Hebrew National beef bologna at my local Gelson's, for $9.95 a pound. I found imported mortadella at a new charcuterie on Santa Monica's Main Street, south of Pico, where some new apartments and retail stores have opened. This mortadella goes for $13.95 a pound. I bought a quarter pound of each to taste-test against my Oscar Mayer, which goes for $3.00 a pound.
Here's how they stack up. That's the Hebrew National at the top, the mortadella at right, and the Oscar Mayer on the left.
Right away the two deli-sliced meats had an advantage - they were thin sliced and delicate to the tongue, while the packaged Oscar Mayer slices were thick and flabby. They reminded me of those flat rubber drain-stoppers you can buy for your sink.
Taste-wise, the beef bologna was the most assertive, with a good strong flavor like a hot dog - which makes sense, because Hebrew National beef hot dogs are also delicious. The Oscar Mayer bologna was bland and inoffensive, but it had a kind of plastic texture under the teeth. It may have been better sliced thin at the deli counter. The mortadella was the most delicate, and had the most complex, yet subtle, flavor. Porky, with a slightly sour cured scent, and a hint of spice, plus the occasional bite of peppercorn. It also had a delectably fatty mouth-feel to it that both of the other meats lacked. Yet that fatty richness soon became cloying and made me feel satiated quickly.
The verdict? Overall, the Hebrew National beef bologna hit the right spot in terms of taste and price. Its assertive flavor meant that you could make a sandwich with just a couple of slices and still get the flavor and character, and feel like you'd really eaten something. The Oscar Mayer was the most economical, but it just wasn't pleasant to eat. The mortadella was good, but not so good it justified the price. At that price, I'd rather have a fantastic garlicky salami, or spicy capicola, or a suave and unctuous proscuitto.
What's your favorite pink deli meat?