Okay, so I lied. So sometimes it is not all about the foie gras and the truffle oil and the ganache but it is as simple as a confession to tell you that I dream of spooning out and gobbling up Mayo from the jar and I get uncontrollable urges for black pepper potato chips (lots of them) and the ultimate source of a home comfort lunch can be, yes, can be in moments of angst and trial and turbulence, a mortadella sandwich slathered with that glorious mistress mayonnaise again (shun any light version) and a thick slab of hearty tomato on nothing else than a dense and overly processed slice of potato bread. Yes I could do the focaccia or kalamata loaf or even multigrain your-colon-thanks-you-greatly stuff, but no, it’s the mushy, soft, heavenly bread in the bag that will turn this experience into a religious one.
Bologna love begins early for most of us and I was no exception. I have few memories of those first years of school, but one crystal clear one is the delicious bologna sandwich that lay nestled inside my Six Million Dollar Man metal lunchbox. Eagerly, I’d bypass the sliced carrots, toss the apple, save the chocolate chip brownie for last and pounce into my sandwich. Life was better with a biteful of bologna.
My weakness goes beyond mortadella, which, with its fancy Italian name could be misconstrued as an exquisite sculpture technique popular in the late Renaissance (I envision a jade-hued Poseidon staring ominously with an expression of gloom and glory). That would be for those not in the know, of course, but even those who line their books with cooking titles would allow this craving to slip by merely because of its deliciously foreign interpretation: after all how can you say no to bologna with toasted pistachios incorporated? Every nibble is a play of smoky flavor with a nutty bite.
I remember the first bologna confession I heard from my mother. I had grown up raised by the most elegant and sophisticated woman on the planet. At 5 foot 9 inches (mostly comprised of beautiful long legs and a gracefully elegant neck) my mother, with her exquisite blue eyes and dazzling smile was my own homemade movie star. As a child I constantly boasted about her and followed her every move and even though my father’s short genes played the trick of leaving me at a mediocre 5”4, I was inspired to always thrive to live a life full of grace and charisma because of her.
Cooking was no exception. It was the family joke that before my mother met and married my father she could not even boil water, an image that was inconceivable to my sisters and I, whom, desperately trying to make sense of the world, would beg our father to retell the story of mom learning to cook. My father’s eyes would twinkle as he’d launch into his charismatic storytelling complete with bursting adjectives and uncontrolled hand gestures as he recounted how he slowly and patiently taught my mother the secret of scrambling eggs (slow fire, constant stir) during their courtship. It seemed fitting that the lesson in question revolved around eggs (my father makes the best omelet I have ever sampled) so, I assumed the tale to be accurate and simply pegged her as being a fast learner.
The woman I knew could certainly boil water and so much more. Our dinners where always exquisite: from soufflés, to crepes, to rosemary-crusted lamb with smooth and silky gravy, mom cooked with the gusto and confidence of Julia Childs. There was no culinary hurdle she wouldn’t tackle and succeed in. Our kitchen was always stocked with the finest ingredients and our plates presented with a memorable meal night after night.
Which was why, when I moved with her to the States as a young adult, I was shocked to learn she loved to eat Lebanon bologna, a cured, smoked, fermented, semi-dry sausage. Before that I didn’t even know what Lebanon bologna was and thought maybe it was some strange Middle Eastern trick around not eating pork. She also revealed her passion for Scrapple, a mush of pork scraps combined with cornmeal and buckwheat flour and shaped into a loaf. In an odd way, it all made sense: these items originated with the Pennsylvania Dutch and resonated with her humble Philadelphia beginnings. As she shifted into adulthood, marriage, and motherhood, raising us in a foreign country carried her away from the possibility of any Lebanon bologna bonding.
The two years I spent exploring the lost side of bologna with her in New York reinvented my mother in many ways. While we’d still enjoy the perfectly chilled glass of Brut champagne and relished in exploring the ever-bustling Manhattan restaurant scene, it was over packages of scrapple she eagerly fried up that she would share with me forgotten stories of her youth now suddenly uncorked by the flavors of her memories.
It has been many years since my mother lost her battle to cancer and there are numerous moments in my day that tie me to her one way or another, but my quiet escapades with junky pork products is easily one of my favorites. Aside from my preferred mortadella, I can’t help but stock up on a package or two of Scrapple or Lebanon bologna. I keep them all quietly next to the rose petal jam and the bottles of Gerolsteiner. One never knows when a quick fix will be needed.