"My grandmother would always fry our bologna sandwiches; that’s because fried bologna is good for your soul."
“Doesn’t bologna remind you of being a kid?,” asks chef Craig Deihl of Hello, Sailor. Originally from Danville, Pennsylvania, Deihl grew up snacking on bologna from his uncle’s butcher shop. Now you can find him serving up one of North Carolina’s most-talked about sandwiches, the "Chicagoish Fried Bologna"—a Carolina-meets-Chicago-style bologna sandwich that pays homage to owners Joe and Katy Kindred’s roots.
If you were raised in the South, a bologna sandwich was a crucial part of childhood. There’s no denying the satisfaction of a processed meat and cheese sandwich on “cheap white bread,” slathered with Duke’s mayo on each slice. (Bonus points if your mom fried the bologna.) If we could bottle and sell the smell of bologna sizzling on a pan, we would.
The general consensus is that the best bologna sandwich is the one made at home. “In my late grandma’s kitchen, fried of course,” says bologna fan Marisa Sparkman Houser. The bread is crucial, too, and should always be white, never wheat—choosing the latter would be like committing a small culinary crime down South. A true bologna sandwich entails “fresh Sunbeam white bread and Duke’s Mayo,” says Cathy Rice Cantwell, another lifelong fan.
You've probably noticed the sandwich pop up on menus everywhere over the past few years. In Nashville, Karl Worley of Biscuit Love visits Robert’s Western World to fuel his craving. The $5 recession special (a fried bologna sandwich, Lay’s potato chips, and a PBR) is by no means fancy, but it’s damn good. “The bread is toasted, but the music more than makes up for it,” he says.
We are seeing a resurgence of bologna because we have these small butcher shops popping up all over,” says Deihl. “Bologna is the ability to be able to use not only the trimmings, but the fat. 40% of the bologna is emulsifying the fat into it, and to me, the fat is where all the flavor is.”
In other words, it’s time to respect thy bologna; It’s making a comeback in a gourmet kind of way.
Here, several chefs share their idea of a perfect bologna sandwich.
Throw a tomato on there
“I like bologna crispy, whether it’s sliced thin or thick, but it’s got to be grilled hard and crispy. That’s the way we do it at Hello, Sailor, but we slice the bologna thick and smoke each individual slice so it’s got more flavor. Some people look at the menu not expecting to see a bologna sandwich and then they see the Chicagoish Fried Bologna in person and are like, ‘Now that’s a bologna sandwich.'" Another favorite way to eat it is during tomato season. Put a nice, thick piece of heirloom tomato on white bread with mayonnaise, salt and pepper, and fried bologna. It’s like a BLT but bologna instead of bacon.”
—Chef Craig Deihl of Hello, Sailor (Cornelius)
Caramelize the meat
“My babysitter used to make bologna sandwiches for us. She called them 'camel backs' because of the way the heat would make them dome up in the pan. There’s something so awesome about the way the meat crisps and caramelizes, and it has such a depth of flavor for such a simple ingredient. When we were coming up with the menu for our burger joint, Chuck's, I knew that I wanted to have a fried bologna sandwich, because to me, it’s so iconic and nostalgic, just like burgers.
—Chef Ashley Christensen of Ashley Christensen Restaurants (Raleigh)
Try double-smoked Lebanon bologna
“I have a particular affinity for double-smoked Lebanon bologna from where I grew up in central Pennsylvania. It’s beefy, smoky, and sweet all at once. As a kid, my mom would smear peanut butter on the Lebanon bologna and roll it up for me as a snack and it makes a superior sandwich between two pieces of toasted white bread. Now that I’m a chef, I take the same double-smoked bologna and pair with the amazing Southern condiment, pepper jelly, as a sandwich. I’m pretty specific and brand loyal to Seltzer’s Lebanon Bologna because it’s simply the best.”
—Chef Andy Little of Josephine’s (Nashville)
Mayo, mustard, and chow-chow make good condiments
“We make a lovely Mortadella (fancy bologna) at Main Street Meats with lots of peanuts, black peppercorn and chunks of pork fatback, and then stuff it in beef bungs to poach it sous vide. Thick-sliced and griddled on the flat top then served on multi-grain with mayo, mustard, and chow-chow. It’s pretty boss—I put it on the menu because it’s fun and people love it. Plus, who doesn’t love a hot bologna sandwich?”
Squishy white bread is essential
“I grew up eating bologna sandwiches. I remember cooking them for myself when I was eight using a cast-iron skillet and frying it in butter—you know, healthy. And only squishy white bread. When I wanted to be fancy, I’d put two slices of bologna on a sandwich. That was living well above our means!”
—Chef Karl Worley of Biscuit Love (Nashville)
American cheese is essential, too
“As a kid, I visited family in a small village outside of Munich, Germany, and that was hands down my favorite bologna sandwich I’ve ever had. I also have vivid memories of my best friend in Texas making me a fried bologna sandwich with yellow mustard and American cheese and completely falling in love. That sandwich took me to my earlier years where my grandfather would make olive loaf and pimento cheese sandwiches.”
— Chef Matt Krenz of The Asbury (Charlotte)
Shave the bologna super thin
“Growing up, my grandmother would always fry our bologna sandwiches; that’s because fried bologna is good for your soul. Cold bologna can be just as delicious when done right. I mean, really, all bologna is good for the soul, it’s the food of the people. When making bologna for Gertie’s I wanted it to have that touch of smoky cast-iron flavor that I loved as a kid and I wanted it to go well with whiskey. We lightly smoke the whole bologna on our wood burning grill, shave it super thin, and stack it for a fancy look. The whiskey tie-in is in the slaw, as we take our leftover brown butter (from where we fat washed the whiskey) and use it for flavoring.”