A slice of history

Pennsylvania companies carry on the centuries-long tradition of making tangy Lebanon bologna.

November 09, 2005|By STEPHANIE SHAPIRO | STEPHANIE SHAPIRO,SUN REPORTER

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.

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