Sunday, May 5th, 8:12 PM. More Tales from the Belly of the Beast.
Memories in the shape of a open loop caught me off guard there in the deli aisle. There they were, lying in their refrigerated splendor, decked out in casings colored a brilliant shade of red. I speak of ring bologna, friends, a humble cured meat that roots me firmly in my childhood.
You do know of the ring bologna, do you not? Show of hands?
I'll understand if you have not. Ring bologna is definitely an old school culinary creation that has usually---in my experience---been far overshadowed by the plethora of prepackaged, presliced lunch meats that most markets carry. I will confess that as a kid I probably ate more than my fair share of such things. Convenience and a narrow food focus saw to that particular fixation. But in many ways, that is over now.
I still like cold cuts, but I do not eat them like I did when I was a child. My tastes have changed. These days a good salad or a bowl of pot beans are just as likely to be found in my lunch bag. This is a shift that I'm sure is good for me on many levels. While I do make a pilgrimage to the deli counter now and then, I have drifted away from a lot of that stuff.
Which makes my encounter with ring bologna on this lazy Sunday afternoon all the more intriguing. I was meandering in search of queso fresco and cotija cheese---my personal frijoles de olla do not seem complete without one or the other---and not really in the mind of meat. I was pushing the cart with purpose, and out of the corner of my eye, I saw them.
I slowed for a better look, confirming my initial impression. Almost obscured by the packages of who knows what hanging above was a humble stack of bright red loops there on the shelf. I stopped to look closer; it was indeed a cluster of ring bologna. My nerd brain took over, noting that technically they were open toroids, cylindrical shapes formed by rotating a closed curve about an axis not intersecting or contained in the curve...
...I told my nerd brain to shut up. This was the grocery store, not a topology lab. I nearly walked away from the case at that point, but something made me pick up one of the rings. When I did so, a flood of memories came to me. My maternal grandmother's kitchen. A plate of neatly sliced coins of bologna laying on the crazed ceramic surface, accompanied by a stack of saltines and a generous dab of mustard. G-maw squeezing lemon into her tea while I sat munching in contentment, making little sandwiches by placing a coin between two crackers.
The memories moved forward in time, summer days when she would come to visit and bring a ring bologna with her and leave it in our fridge. Me in my hormonally induced ravenousness ransacking the same refrigerator in search of protein and calories. Later still, finding a care package waiting for me in my college dorm mail room. G-maw occasionally sent them along with crackers and some sweets, soup and the now famous ring bologna. She would pack it in dry ice to help keep it cool.
To me, those packages represented an anchor. They were something that kept me from always having to rely on the dodgy dining hall for snacks and late-night sustenance, especially when my funds for such things were slim at best. My roommates would look askance at me, cocking the eyebrow and teasing me for having gotten "baloney" in the mail. I smiled, nodded, and did not bother to explain what they missing.
The food itself, I know, would be on many nutritional "bad" lists these days. The usual suspects: sodium, nitrates, saturated fat. But back then, it was food for kings, I thought. It kept me from going hungry, it reminded me of home, and people who loved me. I figured out years later that my G-maw had probably eaten a lot of this very stuff when she was a kid, and in her younger days. She did not come from money, and things like ring bologna were relatively cheap and "rib-sticking". To her, it just made sense.
I felt a little dizzy, swaying there at the edge of the refrigerated case. All those memories crowding their way to the forefront of my mind. The package felt cool and slightly yielding in my hand. All my dietary concerns clamoring for me to put it down, convinced that it was something I did not need. I hesitated, then slowly moved to put the bologna back on the shelf. Halfway there, I stopped.
It was true that I had no critical need for the stuff. But need and want are two different creatures. I scanned the package again, vision overlaid by the ghost of my grandmother in her kitchen, talking to me of everything and nothing. Saltines and savor on my tongue, that I could almost taste in their piquancy. I turned and put the package in my cart. The diet would survive this diversion.
Maybe it is true that you can't go home again, but the heart knows that sometimes the tongue can taste it and the belly can be filled, when we dine in the house of memories.