No More Bologna and No More Baloney

No More Bologna and No More Baloney June 6, 2012

by Peter Gathje

Rhetoric Race and Religion Contributor
from: Radical Hospitality

I have a long history with bologna. Bologna was standard lunchtime fare when I was growing up. My parents had to stretch their dollars. There were six of us kids and my Dad was a sheet metal worker bringing in blue collar wages, while my Mom worked various part-time jobs over the years as she focused on child-care (we were an unruly lot). So, out of economic necessity my Dad ate bologna sandwiches for many years and so did us kids (once we graduated from peanut butter and jelly).

There is an old family story about the time Mom complained to Dad that the price of bologna was going up. He was insistent that despite the rising cost of bologna his sandwiches would at least have that meat. Somehow my Mom subconsciously revolted, and the next day when my Dad opened up his dinner bucket at work there was no bologna, no meat at all, between the two slices of bread, just some mustard and butter. My Mom had forgotten to include the bologna when she had made his sandwiches.

Of course when I was growing up, I really didn’t know that it was economic necessity that led my family to eat so much bologna. It was just what we had for sandwiches. I didn’t have much class consciousness. And even with all the education I gained over the years, I never really thought much about bologna’s place in the social hierarchy of foods. It was many years before I picked up that bologna was known as the meat for the working class and the poor.

Recently I came across a book that begins with a reflection on bologna and social class. Miguel De La Torre in Latina/o Social Ethics: Moving Beyond Eurocentric Moral Thinking, writes of asking his students at the beginning of his class on social ethics, “Ever wonder what happens when you fry baloney?” The students who consistently know the answer (it bubbles up) are people who have known poverty. De La Torre writes, “only the poor—sick and tired of eating the cheapest meat available as a dietary staple—finally revolt and attempt creative new ways of serving the food of the poor.” De La Torre’s experience that bologna is a dietary staple of the poor, and that poor folks would prefer to eat something different, does not seem to influence most soup kitchens that also serve sandwiches.

About two blocks from Manna House, a place of hospitality for homeless and poor persons in Memphis that I help to direct, there is a soup kitchen. This particular soup kitchen serves a bologna sandwich with every lunch. And through spending some time on the streets and talking with guests at Manna House I’ve learned most other soup kitchens do the same. Bologna sandwiches are common fare at soup kitchens around the entire city. I have a hunch that this commitment to bologna sandwiches is not for reasons of taste, nor of economic necessity, but is due more to the attitude, “the poor can’t be choosey.” Serving isn’t so much about hospitality, welcoming people in ways that affirm their dignity, but more about charity dispensed from above.
There is another place in Memphis that serves bologna sandwiches with regularity, the county jail, widely known as “201” because its address is 201 Poplar. I’ve had the pleasure of eating at this fine establishment. About two years ago I was arrested along with several others as part of a protest against the war in Iraq. We were handcuffed, put in police cars, and then taken to 201. While I was being processed into the jail a meal was served in the processing area: jungle juice, chips, and a bologna sandwich with white bread.

It really was at that point that I began to wonder if our guests at Manna House saw any connection between the bologna sandwiches served at 201 and the bologna sandwiches served at the soup kitchens around town. The next day, back at Manna House, I started asking guests about bologna sandwiches. One laughed and said, “O yeah, we’re served prison food at the soup kitchen.” Another said (knowing how I like a good rhyme), “Poor man’s meat, ain’t no treat.” One observed, “We’re served bologna in prison and on the streets, and in neither place are we free.” Lastly another said, “Slave food, pure and simple.”

A light bulb came on over my head during these conversations, “now I know why the Open Door Community in Atlanta, GA says no to bologna.” It wasn’t simply a reflection of the personality of its founders; instead saying no to bologna reflected a class analysis and makes a political and theological statement. To serve bologna is to say, “beggars can’t be choosers” or “people on the streets only deserve cheap meats.” To serve bologna is to say, “we don’t care to serve meats that are nutritious and delicious.” To NOT serve bologna is to stop such baloney. To NOT serve bologna is to practice a hospitality grounded in God’s hospitality which offers nothing but the best to those who are poor. To NOT serve bologna is to recognize that Jesus is being served, and Jesus doesn’t like bologna.

To NOT serve bologna is also to connect bologna’s social class connotations with its linguistic connections. “Baloney” is a word pronounced the same as “bologna” but can refer not only to this cheap meat, but also nonsense. And through a little research I came across a clear statement of their connection, “Baloney is a line of crap you tell someone. Bologna is crap that you eat.”

So, I have a modest suggestion for soup kitchens in Memphis, in Atlanta, and everywhere sandwiches are served with soup: No more baloney and no more bologna.

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