It's gazing at you from billboards, leering at you in deli cases, peeking out from your drive-through biscuit.
Is there a better gauge of America's mood right now than the surge in bologna?
At the North Carolina-based chain Biscuitville, bologna biscuits are so popular that they have moved from a seasonal offering to a permanent spot on the menu. Hardee's and Bojangles' went head-to-head with bologna-biscuit specials this summer. (The biscuits did so well that Bo stretched the special out a week longer than planned, ending it Sept. 19, and Hardee's may stick with it into the winter.)
Fried bologna sandwiches are on menus at the Market Grill and Community Deli in Raleigh.
As menu specials go, bologna was a no-brainer, says Mike Bearss, senior vice president of research and development for Charlotte-based Bojangles'.
"I don't think there's a kid in the South that didn't have a bologna sandwich in the summer. Bologna is an all-American sausage. It's not a fried rutabaga that nobody understood."
It's the economy
We should have expected it, of course: Bologna sales went up almost 125 percent in June 2009, the year following the start of the current tough economy. At the time, it gave rise to reports of a "bologna index" that tied sales to the state of the economy.
Nancy Kruse certainly saw the bologna bubble coming. An Atlanta-based menu trends analyst who advises Fortune 500 companies, she gives a yearly "State of the Plate" talk at a menu trends conference.
In 2009, Kruse predicted bologna biscuits would be big, part of a phenomenon she calls "When the going gets tough, the tough turn to meatballs."
In 2011, she hasn't seen any reason to expect a change.
"Really basic, almost heirloom kinds of foods continue to get a lot of play," she says. The economy "forces us into this culinary hunker-down. And part of that is to re-embrace these very basic, comforting foods."
Dr. Marianne Bickle, director of the Center for Retailing at the University of South Carolina, sees two issues behind bologna. Yes, nostalgia is a part of it. But it's also just plain economics. Retail food prices have gone up 14 percent, she says, so people are looking for bargains. And restaurants need something they can offer at a lower price to increase traffic.
Marketing bologna as special "is truly being creative," she says.
Bologna fans can say their day is coming: That would be Oct. 24, National Bologna Day. (Is there anything in America that doesn't have a national day? Ask us on Jan. 16 - National Nothing Day.)
Maybe it's about time. In American, bologna doesn't get much respect. Even its name has become slang for something that isn't real.
That's a shame. Really, bologna is an Americanized version of Italian mortadella, a specialty of - of course - the city of Bologna.
In Bologna, mortadella is an art, says Joseph Bonaparte, director of curriculum for the Art Institute. Bonaparte is a certified master of regional Italian cuisine.
Real mortadella dates to the ancient Romans. The name comes from the mortar and pestle used to grind the meat into a paste and the myrtle that originally seasoned it.
Making mortadella isn't easy, says Bonaparte, who has made it for local food events. You first grind and then pound lean pork shoulder into a fine paste. As you grind it, you have to regulate the temperature to keep the protein from clumping, usually by working in ice. After you shape it, adding the traditional pistachio nuts, peppercorns and chunks of fine, white fat, you cook it slowly for hours so it stays soft and the fat doesn't leak out.
In America, we slice bologna thick and fry it or stick it in a sandwich. In Italy, you slice mortadella ultra-thin, so it practically melts in your mouth.
That's where soft, feathery mortadella and rubbery cheap bologna part ways, says Bonaparte.
"I wasn't a big fan of bologna growing up," he says. "But I love mortadella. Whatever Americans did to mortadella, it's kind of an atrocity. It doesn't have to be. You can use good-quality pork and seasoning and do it right.
"It's like a hot dog - there's good hot dogs and crummy hot dogs."
Find the good stuff
There are other places in the world that appreciate bologna. There are all-beef kosher bolognas, German bolognas and the more seasoned Pennsylvania-Dutch version called Lebanon bologna.
Finding good-quality bologna can take a little looking. In a supermarket, try the deli case instead of the lunchmeat case. At Harris Teeter, for instance, you can find several kinds of Boar's Head bologna. All-beef bologna also is a steady seller at The Meat House in Raleigh.
In Raleigh, look for domestic and imported mortadella and German bologna at Antonio's Gourmet Market.
Expect that higher-quality bologna will have a higher price, usually ranging from $6 to $8 a pound, compared to lunchmeat bologna that costs $3 a pound or less.
When you do find good bologna, though, you can do more than put it in a sandwich. A thick slab of bologna smoked on a grill, diced and passed around with toothpicks is a popular treat at tailgates and barbecue competitions. If people turn up their noses, just tell them it's mortadella. alla Weber.
In the meantime, don't expect the bologna biscuit to disappear any time soon.
"We don't make a habit of considering doing something again if it doesn't hit," says Mike Bearss of Bojangles'. "So you'll see it again."