ADVERTISEMENT

It's gazing at you from billboards, leering at you in deli cases, peeking out from your drive-through biscuit.

Is there a better gauge of America's mood right now than the surge in bologna?

At the North Carolina-based chain Biscuitville, bologna biscuits are so popular that they have moved from a seasonal offering to a permanent spot on the menu. Hardee's and Bojangles' went head-to-head with bologna-biscuit specials this summer. (The biscuits did so well that Bo stretched the special out a week longer than planned, ending it today, and Hardee's may stick with it into the winter.)

Fried bologna sandwiches are on many restaurant menus.

As menu specials go, bologna was a no-brainer, says Mike Bearss, senior vice president of research and development for Charlotte-based Bojangles'.

"I don't think there's a kid in the South that didn't have a bologna sandwich in the summer. Bologna is an all-American sausage. It's not a fried rutabaga that nobody understood."

We should have expected it: Bologna sales went up almost 125 percent in June 2009, the year following the start of the current tough economy. At the time, it gave rise to reports of a "bologna index" that tied sales to the state of the economy.

Nancy Kruse certainly saw the bologna bubble coming. An Atlanta-based menu trends analyst who advises Fortune 500 companies, she gives a yearly "State of the Plate" talk at a menu trends conference.

In 2009, Kruse predicted bologna biscuits would be big, part of a phenomenon she calls "When the going gets tough, the tough turn to meatballs."

In 2011, she hasn't seen any reason to expect a change.

"Really basic, almost heirloom kinds of foods continue to get a lot of play," she says. The economy "forces us into this culinary hunker-down. And part of that is to re-embrace these very basic, comforting foods."

Dr. Marianne Bickle, director of the Center for Retailing at the University of South Carolina, sees two issues behind bologna. Yes, nostalgia is a part of it. But it's also just plain economics. Retail food prices have gone up 14 percent, she says, so people are looking for bargains. And restaurants need something they can offer at a lower price to increase traffic.

Marketing bologna as special "is truly being creative," she says.

Bologna fans can say their day is coming: That would be Monday, National Bologna Day. (Is there anything in America that doesn't have a national day? Ask us on Jan. 16 -- National Nothing Day.)

Maybe it's about time. In America, bologna doesn't get much respect. Even its name has become slang for something that isn't real.

That's a shame. Really, bologna is an Americanized version of Italian mortadella, a specialty of -- of course -- the city of Bologna.

In America, we slice bologna thick and fry it or stick it in a sandwich. In Italy, you slice mortadella ultra-thin, so it practically melts in your mouth.

That's where soft, feathery mortadella and rubbery cheap bologna part ways, says Joseph Bonaparte, director of curriculum for the Art Institute in Bologna and a certified master of regional Italian cuisine.

"I wasn't a big fan of bologna growing up," he says. "But I love mortadella. Whatever Americans did to mortadella, it's kind of an atrocity. It doesn't have to be. You can use good-quality pork and seasoning and do it right.

"It's like a hot dog -- there's good hot dogs and crummy hot dogs."

There are other places in the world that appreciate bologna. There are all-beef kosher bolognas, German bolognas and the more seasoned Pennsylvania-Dutch version called Lebanon bologna.

Expect that higher-quality bologna will have a higher price, usually ranging from $6 to $8 a pound, compared to lunch-meat bologna that costs $3 a pound or less.

When you do find good bologna, though, you can do more than put it in a sandwich. A thick slab of bologna smoked on a grill, diced and passed around with toothpicks is a popular treat at tailgates and barbecue competitions. If people turn up their noses, just tell them it's mortadella.

In the meantime, don't expect the bologna biscuit to disappear any time soon.

"We don't make a habit of considering doing something again if it doesn't hit," says Mike Bearss of Bojangles'. "So you'll see it again."

If you're a fan of fried bologna, fried or grilled mortadella is even better.

This version from Mario Batali at www.foodandwine.com folds it into a simple appetizer.

>Grilled Mortadella Packets

12 thin slices of mortadella

12 ounces fresh goat cheese

12 basil leaves

3 cups packed baby arugula

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon red wine vinegar

Salt

Place 4 slices of the mortadella on a work surface. Spoon some cheese in the center of each and top with a basil leaf. Fold the mortadella over the cheese, folding in the sides to form a packet, and secure it with toothpicks. Repeat with the remaining mortadella, cheese and basil.

Heat a grill or preheat a grill pan. Grill the mortadella packets over high heat for about 1 minute per side, until they are lightly charred and the cheese has melted. Discard the toothpicks.

Toss the arugula with the olive oil and vinegar and season with salt. Transfer to a platter. Arrange the packets around the arugula and serve right away. Makes 6 servings.

***

>Bologna Omelet Cups

8 slices bologna, divided

3 eggs

2 tablespoons nonfat or reduced-fat milk

2 tablespoons minced onion

2 to 3 tablespoons diced or grated cheddar cheese

Note: Fried bologna tends to puff up in the center, making it a handy holder for eggs. From www.cooks.com.

Place 6 slices of the bologna on an ungreased skillet and heat until the centers puff. Immediately place each slice into a lightly greased muffin cup.

Dice the remaining bologna and set aside.

Beat the eggs with the milk in a small bowl. Stir in the chopped bologna and onion. Pour egg mixture into bologna cups. Bake, uncovered, at 350 degrees for 15 to 20 minutes or until eggs are set.

Sprinkle with cheese. Return to oven for 1 or 2 minutes until cheese melts. Makes 3 servings.

***

Barbecued Bologna

1 (2-pound) chunk bologna

Bread, mustard and chopped onion for sandwiches, or toothpicks and grainy mustard to serve as hors d'oeuvres

Heat a smoker, bringing the temperature up to 180 to 220 degrees. Score the bologna with wide, crisscross cuts, about 1/4 inch deep.

Smoke the bologna for 1 1/2 to 2 hours, until heated through with a crisp surface.

Slice and serve as sandwiches, or cut into large cubes and serve with toothpicks and grainy mustard for dipping.

-- Adapted from "The Big Book of Outdoor Cooking & Entertaining," by Cheryl and Bill Jamison (Morrow, 2006).