Thursday, April 5, 2012

From Beasts of Burden to Pure Baloney: Notes on the History of Mortadella

This is the fifth in a series of six articles by Educator Judy Levin, originally written as research for our “Foods of the Lower East Side" walking and tasting tour.

In the 1971 film, "La Mortadella," Sophia Loren plays an Italian immigrant coming into New York with a 20-pound mortadella, a wedding present from her coworkers at the mortadella factory. However, she is stopped by customs officials.

“You can’t bring salami into the country,” they say.

“It’s not salami. It’s mortadella,” she replies.

This doesn’t help, and she is arrested for causing a fuss—and for breaking the law against bringing pork products into the United States. While various government agencies are arguing about who is going to pay for her ticket back to Italy, she has to stay at the airport, where she and some of the customs employees eat the delicious mortadella before her return flight can be arranged.

Loren as a factory worker in "La Mortadella"; Image courtesy

So what is this stuff that’s delicious enough to get arrested for? Mortadella’s origins go back at least to the 14th century and possibly to ancient Rome. In its modern form, which has Protected Geographical Indication status (as Proscuitto di Parma does, or champagne), Mortadella di Bologna is made of finely ground and emulsified pork. Added to the mix are cubes of fat, spices, and sometimes pistachios. Finally, it’s cooked. This makes its texture very different from dry-cured or smoked meat products. It is soft, moist, and perishable.

Mortadella; Image courtesy

Because mortadella is ancient and venerable, it has gathered the usual collection of disagreements and imitations. Disagreements begin with its name, which may come from the myrtle once used to flavor it or from the mortar (Italian, mortaio) used to pound the meat fine.

Sal Di Palo is a 4th generation proprietor of the 87-year-old New York institution that is Di Palo’s Fine Foods, purveyor of mortadella and many other Italian delicacies. Sal says mortadella means “the death of the beast of burden” (morta della, “the death of it”) and that it was a thrifty way to make use of donkeys and horses that pulled the plow. The meat was ground fine and fat was added to counteract its tough, dry consistency. Sal’s brother Lou believes that the "mortar" etymology was invented so as not to scare off the Americans, who’d rather not be reminded of the connection between death and meat.

There’s evidence to suggest that mortadella was once made of donkey meat, wild boar, and possibly even horses. “Morta della” may be a folk etymology, yet it speaks to something important in the food’s history: It is indeed made of meat ground very finely, and thus it does use bits of the animals that could not be made into more coarsely ground sausages.

DiPalo's Fine Foods in New York; Image courtesy

Our American bologna—and English polony—were created at different times in homage to the greatly admired Mortadella di Bologna, which was exported to France, England, and other parts of Europe by the 17th century. Recipes for polony go back to the 17th century in English cookbooks. Belony appears in the 1747 Hannah Glasse’s classic English cookbook. In America, German immigrants were known for making bologna, which is, after all, made by the same process by which one makes frankfurters. Lebanon bologna is a slightly smoked and aged product from the Pennsylvania “Dutch.” American bologna can be made of chicken, beef, pork, turkey, or venison.

American law dictates that bologna can’t contain the cubes of fat that characterize Italian mortadella, but the two distant cousins still share a common lineage. So the American bologna that kids bring to school on Wonder Bread has its roots in what one scholar calls “mystery meat minced by medieval monks,” possibly in England and Germany even before the Italians got around to it.

Though of course it’s a matter of opinion, many say that American bologna doesn’t taste as good as its European predecessor. According to the head of one of the Italian pork factories, “Mortadella makers look upon American-made bologna the way French champagne producers view Ripple—with disgusted pity.” Which is why so many people make their way to Di Palo’s in what remains of Manhattan’s Little Italy, for a taste of Italian history.

--Posted by Educator Judy Levin

For more reading on the subject, check out:

S. Irene Virbila , “No Baloney: Mortadella Sausage, Made With Italian Finesse And Care, Is A Bolognese Specialty”, The Chicago Tribune, January 04, 1990

Justin Demetri, “Salumi: Italian Cured Meats”, Life in Italy

The Di Palo Fine Foods Web Site:

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