Lebanon Bologna - Gastro Obscura


Lebanon Bologna

There's even a museum dedicated to this preserved meat.

Lebanon Bologna (pronounced “boh-low-nah”) may seem like a classic kosher salami, with its deep red color and the coarse grain of its meat. Looks can be deceiving, though. This bologna has a unique history and a taste that might give you a good startle.

Lebanon bologna isn’t from the nation in the Middle East, nor from Italy either. Originating in Lebanon County, squarely in Pennsylvania Dutch Country, it isn’t anything like the cold cut usually called bologna. Instead, it’s more of a cured salami with a sweet-and sour-profile.

As for why it’s not called Lebanon salami, the answer is technical: real salami is air-dried rather than smoked. It became known as “bologna” locally around 1890; a time when actual bologna was the most similar product in size and shape. Today’s food scientists would describe it as a summer sausage.

Beef has always been the key ingredient. Originally, it was made from the tough meat of old dairy cows that could only be eaten ground and heavily spiced. There’s also a sweet note to the seasoning, although some varieties are far sweeter than others. This is the old Pennsylvania Dutch food philosophy at work; anything can be made better by adding more sugar. Part of the sweetness comes from the fermentation process as well. This is a living food—a sort of meat yogurt, if you will.

While you can purchase plastic-wrapped slices of Lebanon bologna, connoisseurs either buy muslin-wrapped whole sausages or smaller amounts, freshly cut. There’s a certain thrill in peeling away the fabric and finding the cured meat.

How much does Lebanon County love its sausage? Let’s just say that the city of Lebanon celebrates the New Year by hosting a “bologna drop” downtown. As the final seconds of the old year pass, a disco ball and large, whole bologna are lowered in a display of gastronomic appreciation. The sausage is then donated to a local food bank.

In another enthusiastic display of this local love, Seltzer’s Smokehouse Meats, its largest producer, maintains an exhibit of Lebanon bologna memorabilia at its outlet store in Palmyra, just a bit west of downtown Lebanon. For fans of Pennsylvania Dutch history, the photos and newspaper clippings are a look into the traditions of a place that’s very much off the beaten path.

The bologna isn’t just produced in factories, either. Across Pennsylvania Dutch Country, butcher shops still make their own artisan versions. Dietrich’s Meats in Krumsville, Berks County is a perfect example. Wedged between I-78 and rural farm country, the perfume of the smokehouse that fills the air is a hint to what they’re selling inside. 

Enter the store and the smells become more complex. Browse and you’ll spot Lebanon bologna alongside dozens of other local specialties. It’s a place where you’ll find food artisanship; the combination of love, craft, deliciousness, and history that makes the trip worthwhile.

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