Palmyra, Pa. -- Where there's smoke, there's history in Pennsylvania Dutch Country, where Lebanon bologna has remained a popular foodstuff since the 18th century.
The uninitiated may dismiss Lebanon bologna as an obscure luncheon meat, but for those who grew up eating slices of the stuff in sandwiches, served fried with eggs or smeared with cream cheese, it is an "identity food" redolent of southeastern Pennsylvania's distinctive culinary heritage.
"True Lebanon sausage," writes Evan Jones in American Food: The Gastronomic Story, "is made of nothing but coarsely ground beef pre-cured and aged in barrels, then seasoned with sweet herbs and assertive spices, forced into airtight casings, and smoked over smoldering sawdust for a matter of days."
Like Italy's mortadella and Germany's thuringer, Lebanon bologna is known as a cervelat, a dry or semi-dry sausage that is preserved by curing, drying and smoking rather than cooking. Because the preservation process involves fermentation, Lebanon bologna and similar sausages are characteristically pungent.
Lebanon bologna, widely available in area supermarkets, bears no relation to Italian bologna, its precooked deli companion. The name Lebanon bologna itself evolved in the 1920s and 1930s when producers were concentrated in Lebanon County.
By then, the product had long since become a standard part of the Pennsylvania German diet. "Some of the earliest documentation of bologna comes from the 1780s, which means it was around before that," says William Woys Weaver, a Devon, Pa.-based authority on Pennsylvania Dutch cooking traditions. "It is definitely a common market item by the early 1800s."
Prepared in a variety of sweet and savory flavors, the cold cut remains a staple across a wide swath of the state and in areas around the country inhabited by transplanted Pennsylvanians and their descendants. The sausage is such an emblem of regional culture that on New Year's Eve, a 120-pound Lebanon bologna is dropped from a crane in Lebanon, Pa.
Once a seasonal product prepared during the November butchering, Lebanon bologna is produced commercially year-round. Originally, the bologna and other Pennsylvania pork and beef products were cold-smoked in a small attic chamber called the Rauchkammer over hardwoods such as hickory, apple and beech, Weaver says.
The addition of dampened wood chips or sawdust generated greater drafts of fragrant, curative smoke. When household heating methods switched from wood to coal in the 19th century, the family smoking operation was moved outdoors, Weaver says.
In recent years, several Lebanon bologna manufacturers have merged into a few. Telford, Pa.-based Godshall's Quality Meats, for example, has acquired both Kutztown and Weaver's Famous bologna companies.
Now, the Kutztown/Weaver Bologna Co. and Seltzer's Smokehouse Meats are the two remaining bologna manufacturers in Lebanon County. Kunzler & Co. in Lancaster, founded more than a century ago, remains independently owned, as do numerous smaller country butchers, such as Dietrich's Meats & Country Store in Krumsville, Pa.
"The consolidation of 'industrial sausage making,' as opposed to artisanal is not because the popularity is declining but that government regulations, which favor big business, are driving the little guys out of business," Weaver says. "When I did my book, Country Scrapple, I was surprised to find many small producers of bologna, and I really didn't try to go out and rake the phone book for them.
"The industrial sausage makers tend to supply supermarkets, which may be why they have more visibility," Weaver says. But in what he calls the "scrapple belt," territory that stretches west to Denver, "there are lots of small-town butchers who make bologna as a specialty."
One of them, Dietrich's, is well-known among aficionados of headcheese, souse, scrapple, bloodwurst and tonguewurst, as well as Lebanon bologna, both sweet and regular. Dietrich's does its own butchering, and all products are "smoked the old-fashioned German way," says company matriarch Verna Dietrich.
The hickory-smoked sausages that hang by the dozens in the Dietrich smokehouses include summer sausage stuffed in the shape of a football, a quirky local tradition that includes faux stitching on the casing.
Ask Dietrich whether Lebanon bologna continues to be popular among her customers and she responds a bit cryptically: "How popular is it to color your hair red or black? We sell a lot. We don't do wholesale, we do retail. We stay small but good."
Lebanon bologna is a distinctive alloy of Old World and New World cuisine. Its preparation is based both on German recipes that arrived with settlers in William Penn's colony and on "a sausage that was popular in Colonial America among the English," Weaver says.
In Pennsylvania, bologna ingredients evolved according to local tastes and resources. "The Germans themselves made something called Summerwurst, a smoked sausage for hot-weather consumption," he says. "But it was not necessarily a beef sausage, as most of our bolognas tend to be."
Tinkering with the basic bologna recipe remains a constant. Weaver writes in Pennsylvania Dutch Country Cooking: "Over time the bolognas have acquired a peculiarly regional character, especially in flavoring and in the way they are smoked. Sweet Lebanon made as a Bloswarscht, or bladder sausage, is not likely to appear on meat counters outside the Pennsylvania Dutch area; nor are the sweet Lebanons made in the form of footballs, a modern counterpart to the same idea."
Because it sits just east of Hershey, Palmyra, Pa., smells more of chocolate kisses than smoking meat. Within the immediate vicinity of Seltzer's, though, the air turns autumnal and piquant from untold cords of constantly burning hardwood.
In 1902, Harvey Seltzer, a country butcher, went into the bologna business in a former bottling works in Palmyra, a tidy Lebanon County town of frame houses 90 miles from Baltimore. Today, the 110,000 to 125,000 pounds of Lebanon bologna manufactured weekly by Seltzer's Smokehouse Meats is distributed under several name brands to 33 states, says spokesman Ron Fouche, a 48-year company veteran.
In ten 30-foot-tall smokehouses, Seltzer's churns out its product 24 hours a day. The "secret" recipe has basically remained the same, according to the company, but the product line has been updated to include double-smoked sweet bologna as well as lower-sodium and lower-fat items.
With its trademark tangy flavor, Lebanon bologna can be an acquired taste. But those for whom the cold cut has always been a part of their diet remain loyal.
Ruth Stoltzfus, whose family runs a meat company and restaurant in Lancaster County, prefers the sweet bologna, flavored with honey, molasses or brown sugar. "Some call it sweet Lebanon," she says. She packs bologna sandwiches in her husband's lunch and at home makes a grilled bologna-and-cheese sandwich. "I love that combination," says Stoltzfus, manager of the Stoltzfus Farm Restaurant.
At the deli attached to Stoltzfus Meats, manager John M. Smoker occasionally offers a special called the "Pa. Dutch Sub," with sweet bologna, Swiss cheese, lettuce, tomato, onion and mayonnaise or mustard, that is popular with tourists, he says.
Sweet or sour, Lebanon bologna continues to wend through American foodways, emerging in an intriguing range of recipes.
In American Food, Jones writes that for "those who applaud the pungent flavor, pieces of Lebanon sausages are frequently dipped in batter, or in egg and bread crumbs, and served with sauerkraut and mashed potatoes or in a white sauce to accompany flannel cakes. In recent years, as Pennsylvanians have come to absorb the Italian influence on American cooking, these sausages are sometimes diced, mixed with ground beef and tomato sauce and served over spaghetti or German noodles."
Weaver has yet to see Lebanon bologna appear on the menus of fancy restaurants. That doesn't mean sophisticates with Pennsylvania German roots would refuse a cream-cheese-and-Lebanon-bologna pinwheel or a bologna chunk stabbed with a toothpick.
Even the farmers' market in posh Chestnut Hill, in northwest Philadelphia, is "full of traditional stuff, such as scrapple and Lebanon bologna," Weaver says. "They sell out every day."
Seltzer's Nippy Triangles
Makes 16 hors d'oeuvres
6 ounces cream cheese
4 teaspoons horseradish
12 slices Seltzer's Lebanon bologna (any variety)
Mix cream cheese and horseradish. Spread mixture on 8 of the bologna slices. Layer two of the prepared slices and top with a plain slice to create a 3-layered circle. Repeat steps with remaining bologna.
For easier cutting, chill prepared bologna and cream cheese circles in freezer for 30 minutes. Cut each circle into 4 triangles and chill.
Per serving: 69 calories; 4 grams protein; 6 grams fat; 3 grams saturated fat; 0 grams carbohydrate; 0 grams fiber; 21 milligrams cholesterol; 272 milligrams sodium