The little diner that we’d liked so much a couple of years ago–the kind housed in a sleek and shiny, old-fashioned, silver bullet-shaped building–was dark and shuttered.
“Awwww,” we all said in unison, remembering real, hand-patted burgers charred on the flat-top and served with fresh-cut fries and little cups of catsup, and an older, wiser waitress who called us all ‘Hon’ in her gravelly, whiskey voice.
Closed. THAT was a disappointment. And, having been on the road a couple of hours, having passed through Columbus and turned north a while back, and having been discussing the wonders of that boarded-up place and its food, we were, suddenly now, all terribly hungry.
The four lane stretched before us into unfamiliar territory. Jim reached for his smartphone to start exploring possibilities, but then Mark said, “Hey. Want to stop in Waldo?”
Oh, where in the world, you might ask, is Waldo? And I will tell you: it is an Ohio village in Marion township, north of Columbus, just off the road on the way to Bowling Green or Toledo. It has, says Wikipedia, 338 residents as of the last census, and a whopping total of .65 square miles of land.
But it also has a legendary bar where one can get a legendary fried bologna sandwich. The G and R Tavern has been highlighted in umpteen newspapers and magazines in recent years; people stop there and bring back stories of that sandwich, and you hear their angels singing hosannas in the background. Mark really wanted to try the fried bologna. Jim and I figured a place like that should have decent pub food.
The exit sign loomed, and we were starving. Mark veered off the highway, and we drove into Waldo.
It wasn’t hard to find the tavern. Retirees in their comfortable shoes and sensible traveling togs–shoot, people my age–were waiting patiently in line outside to take their significant others’ pictures in front of the wall mural that reads “G and R Tavern: Home of the Fried Bologna Sandwich.”
We found a parking place amid the interesting mix of Beemers and beaters, gleaming SUV’s and well-used, mud-splattered pick-ups.
Childhood memories bubbled: that cool, dark musty smell; the slapping of a screen door, and the rumble of good-natured men, hard-working men, having a cold one on their lunch hour. A lower murmur of polite talk from the visitors, sitting straight on vinyl-covered chairs tucked primly into formica-topped tables. We got the last free booth, right near the doorway. The menu was on the wall. The waitress, who was young and wiry and harried, appeared quickly and took our order.
Jim got chicken fingers. I got a burger. Mark ordered the bologna sandwich.
Of our lunches, Jim and I said, “Eh.” They were standard–meat and fries tumbled out of bags from the freezer, no doubt, and cooked up on the flat-top or crisped up in the deep fryer. Nothing terrible, nothing fantastic: predictable and okay. But Mark had a different reaction. When his sandwich arrived, plated on paper, grease already spreading, making the plate translucent, he sighed, “Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.” And before the first bite, he snapped a picture on his phone and posted it on FaceBook.
“My father,” he said dreamily, “would have loved this place.”
Mine would have, too. Growing up, the answer to the question, “Got any lunch meat?” was generally, “Just bologna.” Boiled ham, sliced and square, was a true luxury; the spicy thuringer was reserved for my father’s lunch bucket. But bologna was cheap and plentiful, and there was usually some of that in the refrigerator.
For the most part, the thought of bologna sent me searching for the giant vat of peanut butter. But, once in a really great while, when the bologna had just come home from the grocer, and the white bread was softly fresh,–just once in a while–the taste of a bologna sandwich was a wonderful thing.
I was not so thrilled when dinner was fried bologna sandwiches, which happened every couple of weeks, usually on the the night before payday. My brothers didn’t seem to mind, and my father would get downright lyrical.
“Ah, you don’t know what’s good,” he’d say to me, and he’d slather up white bread with great swipes of mustard, pile on the bologna slices, charred around the edges, impossibly rosy in the middle. He’d slap it all together, take a big bite, and wink at me.
Mark remembers fried bologna, too, and having cold bologna sandwiches packed in his school lunches. His mother, Pat, added a more exotic dish to their family menu: bologna and pickle. She would grind up the meat and add chopped pickle and mayonnaise. It was good, Mark said, but only once in a while–not as a regular weekly diet.
My off and on job, through the last years of high school, and in college, and just beyond, was in a supermarket deli, where I learned to know bologna and pickle more intimately. We called it ‘sandwich spread’ to differentiate it from true ham salad, which actually used ham as the main ingredient. Next to the slicer, we kept a big, clean plastic tub that had once held pickles. Into it we threw all the too-small-to-slice ends of bologna; sometimes other compatible meats went in there, too. Pickle loaf: a definite yes. Olive loaf, we squabbled over; not everyone liked the taste of olives.
Our tough little boss, Emily, always decided the debate. “Put dem IN,” she would command, and we would throw the olive loaf scraps into the bucket.
At the end of the day, we covered the tub and stuck it into the walk-in cooler. Early the next morning, one of us would retrieve it and run the meat through the industrial grinder, spreading it into a long, high-sided, gleaming metal pan. We’d add a huge jar of salad dressing and a matching jar of pickle relish–always sweet. And, voila: sandwich spread, which many of our older customers, good Depression kids, preferred to the ham salad it nestled next to in the case.
“Better deal,” they said, and, “Better taste. I like to taste the bologna in my sandwich.”
Once, back in those deli days, Emily ordered a big mortadella sausage and made us slice it up and feature it in front of the case. It smelled a little like bologna, but it had great chunks of fat in it; fat and peppercorns, too. It was hard to slice. If I wasn’t careful, the fat and peppercorns fell out and got lost and the stuff looked kind of like Swiss cheese-ed bologna.
“Yuck,” I thought, gingerly picking up circles of fat to plug the holes, but our older customers with Italian backgrounds lit up when they saw it. They took home thick packages of mortadella wrapped in the white deli paper, sealed up with a piece of food-quality masking tape, price scrawled in grease pen. It sold right out, but Emily was told not to order it again; it was a non-standard item that our supermarket chain did not endorse.
“Dumb asses,” muttered Emily.
“Awwwww,” said the disappointed customers who’d enjoyed it so much.
“Thank God,” thought the rest of us, who didn’t like to slice it.
So it was interesting, after we’d arrived home from our trip, and I started pondering the history and the provenance of bologna, to find out that, despite being a smoked and wurst-y kind of sausage, the meat’s roots weren’t German at all, as I’d presumed. Its roots, according to an interesting article in The Huffington Post, are in–duh–Bologna, Italy. (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/10/24/national-bologna-day-what-is-in_n_4151151.html)
And it began as mortadella, which the article calls “…the Italian godfather of American ‘baloney.'” A real mortadella has the fat and the peppercorns and a giant dose of pickling spice. Sometimes, you can even find big hunks of pistachio in the authentic delicacy.
There’s a law in the US of A, though, I learned, that says ingredients in OUR bologna have to be “…comminuted,” which I can only guess means, “ground beyond all recognition.” And so the visible fat, the peppercorns that pop out, refusing to be sliced, and the pistachios, if such exotic fare is added, all disappear into the smooth bland surface of America’s favorite lunch meat. Like any sausage, the article assures me, bologna is made of pork, or sometimes beef; often it has both. It has the added fat, salt, and spices; ground, it’s stuffed into a casing and smoked.
The seasonings include things like pepper, myrtle berries, allspice, nutmeg, celery seed, and coriander. Bologna’s high in fat and flavor, the writer noted, but often gluten free.
At the end of the article, there was a photo of a cake made out of slices of bologna glued together with some kind of white, mayonnaise-y type icing. One quarter was cut away so I could see the layers. On the top were melting cheesy roses and cheerful little dots of catsup and tiny sprigs of fresh parsley.
“Clever,” I thought, grudgingly.
And then, having thought more about it, “Yuck.”
Mark’s fried bologna sandwich was so bulky that he started to raise his hand to ask the waitress if she could cut it in half. But a man seated at the bar, a huge and grizzled old guy with Popeye arms, a giant belly, and a sweaty blue dew-rag, turned around and met Mark’s eye. Mark had his hand halfway up. The big guy looked at the big sandwich, cocked his head, and gave Mark a pitying look.
Mark’s face hardened. He nonchalantly picked up his fried bologna, took a great, decisive bite, and began to chew. He gave the big dude a “How do you like me NOW?” kind of glare. The guy grinned and hopped off the bar stool, heading back into the nether regions of the bar toward the restrooms.
Before Mark had even finished the sandwich, comments began pinging in response to his FaceBook post.
The comments were about evenly divided. A third dwelled on the tavern, where many people had been and which many people fondly planned to visit again. Another third waxed rhapsodic about bologna itself, offering childhood memories and thoughts about fried, versus cold, versus ground. And the final third said, “Disgusting! How can you eat that?” One noted that her cat won’t eat bologna, and she said the only things her cat won’t eat are clearly toxic. Another did not use words; instead, she posted a green emoticon, barfing.
I often judge my eateries by the bathroom facilities, and this ladies’ room had an old folks’ high plastic seat, metal arms arching, set on the commode. I swung my legs like Lily Tomlin’s character, Edith Ann, while I wondered if the porcelain sink’s gray sheen was from age or something else. Jim reported, less than pleased, that the men’s one-holer had no lock on the door. We shared, James and I, “Been here, done this,” looks, and checked the G and R Tavern off our mental lists.
Mark, however, when he went to the counter to pay the bill, asked about the “Country Boy” sandwich. We bundled off into the car, where he relived the tasty lunch, and then he said reverently that a Country Boy was a burger between two slices of fried bologna on a grilled bun.
Jim and I were silent. Mark added, “WITH melted cheese and a whole wedge of pickle!”
We were still quiet as the car crunched out of the parking lot. Then Jim said thoughtfully, “You know, Dad. If you wanted to come back here and try the Country Boy, you could. And maybe,” he said, with a positive little lilt in his voice, “MAYBE, you could bring Mr. B!”
I thought of our good friend Brian, always up for a culinary adventure.
“GREAT idea, Jim!” I agreed.
And Mark sighed. It was the sigh of a man unable to share his culinary delights with his family. He swerved onto the on ramp, and the car surged northward. We sped away from Waldo, and all that bologna.
Photo taken from The Huffington Post…
Bologna Cake. Go figger.