Last month, sports broadcaster and former NFL star Ross Tucker took to Facebook to post a picture of some stuff that looked like salami and wrote, “Just found out 99% of you don’t know what this is and I’m so so sorry.”
The post showed up on my feed because a relative commented to say he was in the know, and he concurred with Tucker—he felt sorry for those who aren’t. After a quick perusal through the comments on the post—of which there are now 79,000—I surmised that it is called Lebanon bologna and that people like to spread cream cheese on it. Curiosity unlocked. I quickly identified myself as the 99% and made it my mission to get myself out of that majority and into the elite.
Doing so wasn’t as easy as I expected. Though the good old world wide web told me I’d find it at all of my local grocery stores, that proved to be false, although one deli worker at a local Market 32 did tell me they used to carry Lebanon bologna, but stopped because not enough people ordered it. I searched within a reasonable drive of my house and realized I wasn’t going to get it. Maybe Lebanon bologna, a meat of Pennsylvania Dutch roots that originated in Lebanon County, Pennsylvania, was too regional.
I found some online, but I had to order it in bulk and the price was just outside the range of my comfort level for something I wasn’t sure I’d even like. Still, my curiosity had been piqued, so I lamented to a friend about the meat I wouldn’t try, at least in the short term. Then he found some online for a reasonable price, so we decided to order one and split it. Last night, I tried it. And it was delicious.
From the outside, it looked like a normal sausage. I grew up in the suburbs of upstate New York, and around Christmastime, Hickory Farms had a big presence in my area, including a booth set up at the mall. My family would usually be gifted a box of stuff that contained one or two of Hickory Farms sausages, which are smoked. Some people call Lebanon bologna summer sausage, but having grown up eating Hickory Farms’s summer sausage, I can say it is not the same thing as what I’d call “summer sausage” in upstate New York, perhaps because of how it’s made.
“Lebanon bologna has a strong tangy and smoky flavor that sets it apart from other types of cured meats,” says an entry in the Webstaurant Store blog. “The tanginess of the meat comes from the fermentation process that the meat undergoes before it’s smoked.”
This article gets into the nitty gritty of the process of how Lebanon bologna is made, but in brief, the pH level of the meat is lowered, which results in a distinct tangy flavor. Some companies use potassium nitrate to achieve this, while others use a starter culture. The lower pH level of the sausage, between 4.5 and 5, was a means of preservation. As Lauren Reed explains:
“This is where the science of food meets tradition. The pH level is an important factor in explaining why farmers didn’t need to store their sausage or bologna in a cool area. The typical pH level of bologna is between 4.5 and 5 and this can be categorized as acidic. Bacteria tends to survive better in more alkaline environments (ones with pH levels that are above a 7), so one of the main ways to preserve food is to control its pH level.”
The tanginess, therefore, seems to be a happy result of a necessity for preservation.
The tanginess is what I noticed the most about each bite of Lebanon bologna, but it wasn’t the first thing I noticed. First, I was hit with an unmistakeable smokiness, and then I noticed the texture. Although the Lebanon bologna looks like salami, it’s softer. It was after chewing a bit, and swallowing, that the tanginess hit me.
As for my biggest point of intrigue, the cream cheese, I did it, and it did not disappoint.
This, other than planning to order more Lebanon bologna to be shipped to me, is perhaps my biggest takeaway from the experience. In the comments on Tucker’s original Facebook post, some people suggested putting cream cheese on a slice and rolling it up. Others said you should slather it on and then cut it like a pizza into tiny triangles.
Because I ended up with a log of Lebanon bologna instead of thin-sliced stuff from a deli, rolling it wasn’t an option for me, so I just put some on and ate it. The creaminess of the cream cheese totally undercut some of the abrasive smokiness of the Lebanon bologna in a most perfect way. Now I’m wondering if I should slather some cream cheese on other types of smoked sausage?
Bottom line: if you are part of the 99% and haven’t had Lebanon bologna, it’s worth a try. I’m a convert, now part of the 1%, and in agreement with Lebanon, Pennsylvania, that it’s appropriate to lower a massive bologna on New Years Eve.