I haven’t given bologna a thought for 25 years until that hot August night.
I was settled into my cheap hotel room after a long day of driving across the Southwest (New Mexico to be exact). My foot was cramping up, so I chased some muscle relaxers down with a swig of Perrier and got under the covers.
I was somewhere around Flavortown with the drugs began to take hold.
“So they said “Guy – what do you know about smoking meat?” and I said “Lots”, so that’s why I’m here at…” Guy Fieri yelled at me from the television. Despite the yelling, I was only half-watching it as I messed around on my phone.
As I felt my eyelids start to droop, I put my phone down on the peeling veneer nightstand and tried to stay awake long enough to watch the last few minutes of the show. Guy was at some hipster restaurant and they were making bologna.
It caught my attention. I never heard of anyone (even hipsters) making bologna because it wasn’t trendy like pork belly. Bologna is something you buy because it was cheap and it was the butt of every joke regarding its actual contents (second only to hot dog jokes). But the homemade bologna looked surprisingly good and somewhat easy to make. Still, I had no interest, so as my eyes shut for good and I went off to sleep, the homemade hipster bologna was quickly forgotten.
Two days later I was in Catoosa, Oklahoma at a somewhat upscale hotel and casino for a matchbook convention. After a grueling session of sorting through Freebies, I headed over to their faux Route 66 themed diner. Despite the TGIFridayification of the place, there was nothing faux about their ice cold Pepsi and small lunchtime crowd, so it would do. I opened the menu and instantly went to their sandwich selection.
The first sandwich to greet me was a fried bologna sandwich.
Like I stated above, I haven’t thought about bologna in 25 years and now TWICE in two days was I confronted with it. I considered it for a quick second and then decided to go with the classic roast beef sandwich. After I placed my order, I sat back in the booth and listened to the generic 60s rock that blasted out of the decent speakers and relaxed.
We had bologna in our house when I was a kid and I thought it was okay. My mother would usually purchase Oscar Mayer bologna and Cotto salami, which I did NOT like because I hated chewing on the peppercorns scattered throughout. So it was usually just bologna, mustard, and bread and I still eat my sandwiches like that (at home.) My taste in sandwiches is pretty much the same as my taste in men – boring, white, and full of baloney.
So when I go out to have a sandwich somewhere, I get it loaded up with toppings (or “fixins”, as the Roy Rogers fan in me likes to call it) and non-bologna meat. In my adolescent years there was a Togo’s near my home and all throughout high school, my friend Jo and I would walk over to get sandwiches after school.
And she would get bologna and cheese.
I was super put-off by that. “Why would you get bologna? We’re at TOGO’s!” I remember saying in disgust. To me, you ate bologna at home and you get fancy meat when you go out for sandwiches, like turkey, ham, or roast beef. The sandwich snob in me wasn’t going to spend my pilfered lunch money on bologna!
During the rest of the matchbook convention, I continued to eat lunch at that diner and I continued to deny that fried bologna sandwich. I almost had the bologna memory back in the shitcan part of my brain until my last day in Oklahoma, when I arrived a real down-home BBQ.
Although it was humid as fuck, it was a fun gathering. All of us phillumenists sat around and shot the shit and swam in the refreshing pool until it was time to eat. I grabbed a paper plate and started to fill it with all kinds of BBQ meat and fixins (yay!). I saw some thick slices of something that I had an inkling was some kind of processed meat.
“What’s this?” I asked, picking up a slice with the tongs.
“Oh….” I said with uncertainty. But I didn’t want to hold the line up any more, so I put two slices on my plate and doused it in BBQ sauce. I brought my plate outside and sat down with the other folks.
I started in on everything else on my plate and it was all delish. Surprisingly it was the first and only BBQ I had on my trip and it was a nice change from the road food and casino diner grub I had been eating. Of course I saved the bologna for last.
“Don’t get excited, gentlemen…” I said dryly, “but I’ve never had bologna this hot and thick before.”
“What?!?!” everyone exclaimed in disbelief. I forgot that I was among a bunch of good ol’ folk.
“We don’t have bologna like this in California.”
“You ain’t never had Kentucky Round Steak?” someone asked. I didn’t want to be THAT asshole and tell him that it’s technically Oklahoma Round Steak, so I decided to go along with it and be a good sport. I cut myself a piece, dragged it through the BBQ sauce and put it in my mouth.
It was actually ok. I tasted mostly BBQ sauce, but it was tolerable and even kind of good. I was worried about the consistency, thinking it would be a big slab of mushy meat, but it wasn’t. I could tell they were all waiting for the California Girl’s reaction, so I gave them one.
“It’s ok. Bologna ain’t nothing but a flat hot dog.”
“It is NOT!” someone said, clearly exasperated with my comparison.
“It is TOO!” I insisted. Because – hello – it IS. If you take some cheap-shit Farmer John hot dog and some cheap-shit Bar S bologna and do some Forensic Files on it, it’s going to show you it’s the same shit, just differently shaped pig snouts and assholes.
But I did finish the rest of my Oklahoma Round Steak.
I had been home back in LA for about a month when I found myself having an early dinner at Canters Deli. I normally get a French Dip sandwich (they’re surprisingly good there), but as I was looking through their new hip and confusing menu, something caught my eye. They had gotten rid of most of their namesake sandwiches in their attempt to update the menu, but they had kept the Danny Thomas sandwich.
Which was a hot bologna sandwich.
I sighed and let my shoulders sag in defeat. Fuck it – I’m just giving in and surrendering.
I ordered the Danny Thomas on challah bread – plain – and some matzo ball soup. When the sandwich came, I pleasantly surprised to see that the bologna was sliced traditionally thin and not big thick slabs like the Oklahoma Round Steak. I slathered my Danny Thomas with mustard and took a bite.
It was delicious. And it tasted like a hot dog sandwich.
Now when I go to Jewish deli’s, I always look to see if they have bologna (so far Canter’s has been the only one) and I’ve even picked some up from the deli at Vons (the only grocery store around me that has it.) I remember the first time I bought it, asking the young man behind the deli case to slice it thin.
“We don’t sell a lot of this, especially thinly sliced. You must not be from around here,” he said as he put the meat log on the slicer.
“Dude, I’m born and raised here. But you should try it – slice it thin, heat it up, and put it on some good bread with yellow mustard. It’s totally awesome!”
“That does sound pretty good. What does it taste like? I’ve never had it before,” he said as he wrapped up my bologna and handed it to me.
I smiled at him and said “You ain’t never had California Round Steak?”