The Origins of Polony
by Eben van Tonder
8 March 2019
We trace the origins for the emulsion sausage, polony. Where does its name come from? How did it historically develop? I examine several references to it between 1929 and today. What is the difference between Bologna and Polony? Is it nutritional and produced from good quality meat? How wide is its occurrence or is it a uniquely South African product? At the end, I pull everything together by giving what I believe was the first polony recipe!
My interest in the origins of the sausage was sparked by a reference by Laurence Green in his book, Harbours of Memory (1969) about South African port cities. He writes that that “butchers prepared fine mutton hams and polonies and these kept fresh in any climate.” Apart from the interesting reference to “mutton hams“, he, interestingly, describes what he meant with polonies. It was “a foot long, one inch in diameter, made of pork and other meats and fat with various spices; they were bound in bundles of twenty-four and sewn up in airtight bladders.”
I was intrigued. Green collected his stories from old men and woman, sometimes from pamphlets that he dug up at street markets and the accounts go back to at least the turn of the 20th century and even further back.
Polony According to Laurence Green
There are several interesting things we can deduce from Green’s account. The fact that it kept “fresh in any climate” points to only one of two preservation techniques. It was either cooked or dried/ fermented.
Secondly, it contained meat (from any species) and fat with different spices. They were then bound in bundles of 24, sewn up in airtight bladders. This rules out drying and if so packed and cooked in water, inside the airtight bladder. This would kill all microorganisms and be the basis for its very stable and long shelf life in “any climate“.
I am not sure if he is referring to the individual sausages being sown up in airtight bladders (i.e. the polony casings of the diameter given by him) or if the 24 polonies were together, in one bunch, placed in a bladder which was sewn up. I have come across this exact technique form a German Master Butcher from the Australian town of Castlemaine. He places his sausages in such a bladder (not a natural bladder, but in now using artificial, probably plastic) casing. Exactly as it would have been done with polony, Frank places the sausage in the casing filled with saltwater and boils it which gives the sausages an amazingly long shelf life at ambient temperatures, even in the hot Australian climate. To eat the sausage, one removes it from the bladder first and then cooks the sausage. I have to ask Frank where he got his inspiration from but when I saw it I suspected it is an ancient technique.
Polony According to C. L. Graves
An article, probably by the famous Irish author CL Graves (1856-1944), appeared in the Canadian newspaper The Province, (Vancouver, British Colombia, Canada, page 6, 18 August 1928) in 1928 where he discusses the origins of polony.
I quote his article in its entirety.
“Foreign names applied to articles of commerce are often so strangely perverted by current usage that their origin is difficult to trace. For example, there is the Polony sausage, which does not hail from Poland but from Bologna in Italy. One does hear much of Polonies in these days but they were immortalized by W. S. Gilbert, in the libretto of H.M.S. Pinafore exactly 50 years ago when he wrote,
“I’ve chickens and conies,
And pretty Polonies,
And excellent peppermint drops.”
But my memory of the Polony goes even further back than Gilbert. It is enshrined in one of the earliest comic songs I ever heard, that known as “The Dutchman’s Wee Dog,” which is so thoroughly characteristic a specimen of the mid-Victorian Music-hall Muse that I make no excuse for quoting it, as far as my memory will serve:
O vere O vere is my little wee dog?
O vere O vere is he?
With his ears cut short and his tail cut long
O vere O vere can he be?
A sausage is good – polony of course:
O vere O vere is he?
But they make it with dog
and they make it with horse,
And I fear that they make it with he.
The reason I think my little wee dog
Into sausage he have been minced
Is I ate a Polony for breakfast last week,
and my stomach has growled ever since.
So whenever I paas a pork-butchers I stop
And whistle this beautiful air,
and the sausage is never runs out of the shop,
So I know that my dog is not there.
I can only approximately date the appearance of this masterpiece. It was to the best of my belief in the early 60’s that it took the town by storm, and it belonged to that group of “melodious bursts” which included the immortal story of “Pretty Little Polly Perkins of Paddington Green.” Most commentators would be inclined to trace the words “o vere O vere” etc a survival of that transposition of v and w which is recognized under the name of Wellerism. But they would be wrong. The dialect of the lyric is not cockney but Anglo-Dutch; and further corroboration is furnished by the title which is “The Dutchman’s Dog” or “Wee Dog.”
Whether the tragedy which it commemorates is founded on fact or not I can not say for certain, but I have a sort of vague recollection that a “regrettable incident” did occur which inspired the nameless bard. It is easy to pick holes in the technique of this poem. For example, the rhyme of “minced” with “since” would not be tolerated by the critics of the Times Literary Supplement. Still, with all deductions and reservations, I maintain that there is lilt and force of imagination in this old song which warrant its inclusion in any anthology of Victorian music-hall verse.“
Several observations stand out. Grave links the word polony to the Polish word Polony, therefore Polish sausage – “Polony sausage, which does not hail from Poland”. He then takes the origin of the sausage, not to Poland, but to “Bologna in Italy.”
Prof Paul Brians from Wahington State University links the sausage from Bologna in Italy to the same concept. He gives the transfer of Bologna to Baloney, but the exact same could apply to Polony. He writes ““Bologna” is the name of a city in Italy, pronounced “boh-LOAN-ya.” But although the sausage named after the city in English is spelled the same, it is pronounced “buh-LOAN-ee” and is often spelled “baloney”” (brians.wsu.edu) and equally likely “poh-LON-ee”. People, knowing the Polish name Polony could easily have inferred “Polish Sausage” for this. Like Graves, Brians makes the point that it is a “sausage named after the Italian city.”
Brian makes a second interesting connection namely to the term “bunch of polony” or baloney. He writes, “there is the expression “a bunch of baloney.” He makes the point that ““Baloney” in this case probably originated as a euphemism for “BS.” When it means “nonsense,” the standard spelling is “baloney.” People who write “bunch of bologna” are making a pun or are just being pretentious.”” (brians.wsu.edu) This is consistent with Greens reference to polony being “bound in bundles of twenty-four and sewn up in airtight bladders.” I wonder if such reference could carry a negative connection of the kind of meat used in Bologna.
He quotes Gilbert’s use of polony going back to 1878, but he remembers the “Dutchman’s Wee Dog” going back to the mid-Victorian times which will be the beginning of the 1800s/ end of the 1700s.
The “Dutchman’s Wee Dog” repeats an accusation that I came across a lot in my research for this article namely the use of horse meat in Polony. “But they make it with dog
and they make it with horse” I can very well imagine that the use of dog flesh was not something uncommon in the late 1700s/ 1800s and even right into our present age. An article appeared for Polony lovers in the Era in London (1849). Mr. Jones from the St Martin’s Market alleged that German sausage makers were using horse meat to make polonies. The allegation was made against the manufacturers in Dryden-street.
The rest of the article is a good clue that it is CL Graves the famous author who wrote the article for its evaluation of the literary and linguistic clues from the poem.
Polonies in Australia
Graves mentions early references about Polony from the 1860s. We find an 1885 reference to it from Australia, quoted by the Leeds Mercury. They reproduce a report by The Daily Telegraph in Melbourne that tells the account of a great fire that broke out in Melbourne. The author could hear a man cry out, but could not discern what he was shouting amidst the roaring flames, the water being sprayed, the noise of the crowd and dogs barking. Eventually, when things calmed down and the fire was brought under control, he was able to hear what the man was shouting about. To his great surprise, he was shouting about “Polonies!”‘ He refers to polonies as “that variety of sausage tribe, I heard, (which is) amazingly popular in the antipodes” (the ends of the earth). Later, the writer exclaims “Polonies on the Pacific“. What was happening, was that during the night, as fireman were battling the blaze at a popular hotel and crowds were looking on, an enterprising Australian was selling polonies.
Of interest is the presence of polony in Australia by 1885 but also the use of the plural, “polonies” as opposed to “polony.” It reinforces the concept that polony was bunched together, therefore “polonies.”
1829 – Sub-spec Meat in Polonies
The Standard in 1829 reports on a court case against a certain Mr. James Hitchcock who was charged with selling meat unfit for human consumption. One of the products sold was Polony and it was made with substandard meat by adding large quantities of salt and pepper “which must have cost much more than the meat itself.” The purpose of such a large number of spices was so that the “abominable quality of the principal ingredient can (could) not be detected until the general health begins (began) to sink under repeated meals.” The picture is now becoming clear. Polony was made from various meat, fat and lots of spices, filled into casings and bunched together. It was probably placed in another bladder and cooked. This allowed for an unusually well-preserved product with a long and stable shelf life.
A was the case with sausage meat generally at this time, polony, in particular, had a reputation as being made from substandard meat. Well-salted meat, adding lots of spices and cooking it not only preserved the meat well but also hid sub-spec meat well. It was such a case described by The Standard in 1829.
During the court case, the quadrennium of the poor was described as follows. “The cheapness (of such a product) rendered the joint (product) quite irresistible, and when once dressed, a poor family would endeavour to make the best of a bad bargain.” In court, it was said that this is an “evil against which the affluent could guard themselves, but the poor were left without security, except such as was given by the certainty of punishment in case of offenses.” Be slow to only lump polony in this class of product containing inferior products, because sausages were also part of the category! The reputation of polonies being made from sub-spec meat nevertheless has a very long historical president. It was widely reported during this time that any person making polonies and who would cut himself/ herself by accident and thus, unintentionally inoculate himself/ herself had a high probability of dying.
Pononies at the Cape of Good Hope
Searching the Cape Archives shows a marked increase in Polony ovens that were installed at various sites across the city of Cape Town in the early 1900s, probably as additions to butcheries. There is a record, for example of inspection that was carried out in 1904 on such an oven in Cape Town. The findings were that a proper chimney had to be constructed and the wooden door and frame had to be replaced by a steel door and frame. it seems that the cooking was done in a chamber, similar to a smoke chamber, but it was clearly dedicated to polony making.
Plans were received shortly after this for the erection of a custom built polony factory. I could unfortunately not locate the actual plans. There is an application for the establishment of the Springbok Bacon & Polony company in 1934. There are many other similar examples and what is clear is that polony, bacon, and biltong were made at various sites by 1900 and that by the 1930s, custom built factories for the production of bacon, polony, and biltong were replete across South Africa. Polony chambers were no longer just an addition to a butchers shop, but factories were being built for the express purpose of producing these commodities on a large scale.
Polony or Bologna?
I did a survey of 57 old American bologna recipes to determine its relationship to Polony. Each one called for an internal core temperature during cooking or smoking of either 68 deg C or 68 deg C, like Polony. The variety of meats used in the recipes is a further clue to the close relationship between it and Polony. It includes a choice of beef trim, beef F. C., beef plate, beef cheeks, beef trim in various ratios, pork cheeks, backfat, pork trim in various ratios, pork hearts, pork jowls, pork diaphragm, pork stomach, pork plate, pork tongue, turkey and turkey fat. In preparing the meat for stuffing, it calls for emulsification and chopping with grinding.
Bologna represents a natural progression from the crude stuffing of casings with whatever meat and fat were available, heavy salting and spicing and cooking. Butchers started using regular ratios of different meats as they developed signature recipes and these recipes made it into the recipe book that I reviewed.
In terms of spices, they all rely heavily on salt, pepper, corn syrup solids (very American), sugar (sucrose) or dextrose (to break the saltiness), with coriander which also features prominently. Rusk and soy also feature in many of these recipes, the soy being either in isolate form of TVP.
In South Africa, polony became an emulsion only product, with or without showpieces, being a natural progression from the more sophisticated bologna recipes that I reviewed. There can be no doubt that it is effectively the same thing.
There is, however, one historical president for a more precise difference. The oldest reference I could find of such a comparison goes back to 1913 in Canada. The comparison was made in response to a question, posed to the accused, Campbell Leckie, in the Airdrie cattle theft case.
According to Leckie, polonies were generally made from bulls. He pointed out that Polonies were made from various kinds of meats (heterogeneous). The accused explained that polonies were made from meat, inferior in nature (and therefore the bull meat used to make it). Bologna was made from good quality meat. Leckie used an expression “only fit for Polonies” and his testimony sheds light on what he meant with this expression. If this perception was universal is difficult to say. I could find no other instance for the use of the expression “only fit for Polonies”. That it was universally suspected that polony may contain inferior meat seems to be well established.
Apart from this distinction which surely now have a firm basis in reality again, notice the use of the plural, Polonies, as opposed to Polony.
Modern Day Polony
What about today? The impression by the general public that inferior meat is used to make Polony is pervasive in South Africa. There are two very important points that must be made about modern polony.
1. Plony falls under the very strict control of legislation around the world and in South Africa in particular, that very carefully defines “real meat” and a minimum standard of meat protein and a maximum level for fat are prescribed to producers to ensure that consumers rights are protected. (see my articles on this subject, Counting Nitrogen Atoms).
2. The second point is that modern day polony (at least as it is made in South Africa) is made with top quality ingredients. Many producers prefer using 100% meat in formulating their polony. Some opt to use MDM (mechanically deboned meat) and treated pork rind to provide body to the MDM. Over the years the quality of MDM has improved dramatically and products today are of the highest quality. I know of no major polony producer who includes any offal products in its polony and it can be said without any contradiction that the polony on the shelves of the major retailers in Africa are some of the highest quality foodstuffs.
Modern-day polony is an emulsion product. “Emulsified sausages are different from other sausages due to the fact that they are finely ground (Marianski et al., 2007).” Modern polony is filled into a large-diameter casing and is formed by changing coarse heterogeneous meat into a homogenous meat mass in which are dispersed water, fat, and protein, that during heating is transformed into a gel (Giese, 1992). Other examples of such emulsion products are “bologna, frankfurters mortadella and frankfurters (Pomeranzi, 1991). Mortadella is a large smooth smoked sausage of Italian origin which is prepared from pork fat, garlic, pistachios , cardamom, cloves, salt and pepper (Ahmad, 2005). Bologna is also a large, smooth-textured smoked sausage of beef, veal, and pork. Bologna is similar to mortadella but it is an American sausage. Frankfurters are small diameter, fully cooked or smoked sausages made from pork, beef, and chicken (Nurul et al., 2010).” (Mapanda, 2011)
“Typical emulsified sausages contain 20 to 30% fat, which contributes to the energy, textural and organoleptic characteristics of the product (Candogan & Kolsarici, 2003; McKeith et al., 1995). One of the reasons why consumers today consume sausages is due to their nutritional value (Pearson & Tauber, 1984).” (Mapanda, 2011)
The fact that polony today is a very nutritious food is an important point. Polony today, contains mainly meat proteins and “meat protein is complete, containing all the nine essential amino acids (Gibis et al., 2010).” “Essential amino acids cannot be synthesized by the human body. For that reason, essential amino acids have to be supplied to the human body by consuming foods which contain them (Feiner, 2006). Meat and sausages are also good sources of B complex vitamins, and all minerals except calcium.” (Mapanda, 2011)
We have said that many producers formulate their polony with MDM (Mechanically Deboned Meat) or, also called MRM (Mechanically Recovered Meat). Because of this “calcium could be slightly higher in polony if MDM/ MRM is used as a protein source. This is because bones are crushed together with the meat, resulting in the extraction of some bone calcium along with meat during the recovery of meat from the frame of an animal. According to the South African National Standards (SANS 885) of 2003, MRM is pulped material that consists predominantly of musculature tissue, collagen, marrow and fat, and that has been recovered by a process of mechanical separation from bone.” (Mapanda, 2011)
Polony, as is the case with pies and every other sausage, lends itself to be made less expensive by more responsible means than was done in the 1700s, 1800s, and 1900s by the addition of soya. Mapanda (2011) thesis is about this exact development and I commend it for further reading – Utilisation-of-Pork-Rind-and-Soya-Protein-in-the-Production-of-Polony-by-Chrispin-Mapanda-2011
Variety of Polony: Polish Kielbasa
Despite the excellent nutritional value of polony and the quality of both production methods and ingredients used in recent years, I personally do not like the bad stigma associated with polony. As is the case with many sausages, unscrupulous butchers still exist today as they did in the 1700s. I personally prefer doing something else with meat to completely differentiate it from what is perceived as an “inferior” product. Bologna is too close to Polony to my liking for use in South Africa. A far more versatile sausage, yet closely related to Bologna and Polonies is the Polish Sausage or Kielbasa (meaning sausage).
Etymologically, the word kielbasa has several interesting possible origins, all of which would fit the concept of sausage. “Turkic kol basa, literally “hand-pressed”, or kül basa, literally “ash-pressed” (cognate with modern Turkish dish külbastı), or possibly from the Hebrew kol basar (כל בשר), literally meaning “all kinds of meat.” (askdefine beta.com)
There are many varieties of Kielbasa, many of them dried and some, like the Kielbasa krakowska, (sometimes called “Krakauer”, originating from the city of Kraków), is made very similar to Polony. The variety and clearly superior quality connections of Kielbasa is something that I feel more at home with.
I give a recipe to show how close Kibasa was with the old polony formulations.
|Beef trim 90 (lean)||25|
|Corn Syrup Solids||2|
|Non-fat dry milk||2|
|Grind Pork 1.2″|
|Chop Beef 60 deg F|
|Cook to internal temp 155 deg F (68 deg C)|
|Spices||Oz, unless otherwise indicated per 100lb. of meat|
|Na or K Nitrite||0.25|
|Caraway seed Ground||2|
It is, in essence, a better thought-through polony! The use of black pepper, coriander, and garlic powder historically relates it in terms of taste closely related to Bologna and Polony and in terms of quality meat, more with Bologna.
Pulling It All Together
Before refrigeration, meat going off must have been a continued headache for the butcher. Refrigeration slowly but surely started creeping into the meat trade from the 1870s onwards. Even after refrigeration became part of every butchery, scraps of meat leftover at the end of the day continues to be a challenge.
Lets put ourselves in the shoes of the astute butcher in any one of the cities around the world. After the primals have been cut and he made his salamis, injected his bacon’s and spiced his biltong’s; after he stuffed his droe wors and his Bologna, something must be done with the fat and meat scraps. He can leave it over for tomorrow, but he may have a bucket of meat that is sour and slimy for a second day already and he has to do something with the leftover scraps and off meat, today! What is his go-to recipe for these? Is there any way for us to know?
Interestingly enough, I have a very good suspicion of what the recipe was. It was given to me by a Belgium butcher when visiting East Africa. It is a very simple and extremely effective and has been used by German, Dutch and Belgium butchers since time immemorial as a sure way to get rid of meat that either went off or is about to go off. It is the kind of thing that nobody goes around talking about, but one can well imagine the need for such a recipe.
Here is the simple recipe:
50% trimmings (any meat) + 50% fat.
Add spices: Salt, black pepper and depending if there is a sour note to the meat, add extra roast onions or garlic or coriander.
Procedure: Grind through course mincer plate. Keep the temperature as close to 0 deg C as possible. Fill into casing. Smoke to a core temperature of 68 deg C. “Feel” the casing. If it is too dry, steam for a few minutes to re-hydrate it and remove.
This, I believe is in all likelihood the first polony recipe. My reasoning is as follows. It contains all the ingredients mentioned by Green in his list of ingredients plus some elements later added.
As is the case with developments of any complex, multi-component systems, they develop from the very simple to the more complex. The simplicity of the recipe is the first clue to its ancient origins. A very good second is its conformity with descriptions of old writers. A variety of a more complex version of the above recipe is,
50 Fat Trimmings
20kg Ould trimmings
Strong spices like roast onions, salt, and pepper are added.
The 50% trim/ 50% fat and spices recipe as simple as one can find. Its widespread popularity to this day across Europe and its well-entrenched character leads me to believe that this is, in fact, the earliest Polony recipe. It is easy to see the progression from the 50/50 recipe to replace the 50% component part of the old recipe first with TVP and MDM. Together they replace the 50% trim.
Independently from the 50/50 recipe, solely based on the use of TVP, we know we can add at least 3 x the TVP weight in water, provided the re-hydration is done correctly.
This gives 50/50 “meat” (TVP and MDM) and 50% fat. The water which we added was only as a consequence of adding the TVP.
If you have meat leftovers which are about to go off or of which the proteins have been denatured for any reason (pH, heat or time plus freezing), add these as fillers – between 5% and 10% of the meat block. These fillers can be added as either denatured meat or bread.
One will have to see what added components will adversely affect the colour of the sausage. A whole host of options exist for the NPD manager to consider to address this.
In order to work out the new meat block as given above requires at least three centuries of meat processing technology and the development in related fields like soya technology. It would have been completely impossible for butchers even up to the mid-1900s to worked this out. The only element still lacking is to bring the entire meat block in line with the food legislation of the country where it is made in terms of the definition of what meat or a meat analog must be comprised off in terms of total meat content and fat limits. It basically is still only a progression of the 50/50 recipe.
I am happy that the 50/ 50 formulation was in all likelihood the first polony recipe.
Historically different kinds of meats and fat were salted and spiced, stuffed into a casing and either cooked on its own or cooked in a larger bladder or casing. Salt, pepper, coriander, and garlic powder were probably used to mask undesirable flavours and tastes. They were approximately a foot long (300mm) and an inch (25mm) in diameter, 24 in a bunch. The original recipe was in all probability 50% trim and 50% fat with spices. The development was done in Bologna, Italy. It’s preservation relied on spicing, salting and cooking. Its shelf life was excellent. It was cheap and allowed the poorest of the poor access to valuable meat proteins. There is, however, at least one instance that I could find, in Canada from 1913 that explicitly have the distinction between bologna and polony as being polony is made from inferior meat and bologna is not. How universal this perception was, I can not say.
Polonies may simply have been the name that caught on in South Africa as opposed to Bologna in the US and Canada. Much more work will have to be done for me to be more specific about this. Polonies progressed to the modern day variety being an emulsion product made from either pure meat or MDM/ MRM and something to give it “body and firmness” or a combination of meat and/or MDM with soya and or rusk with excellent nutritional qualities. Still, as for me, I would rather be making Polish Kielbasa!
“Define kielbasa – Dictionary, and Thesaurus”. askdefine beta.com.
The Era (London, Greater London, Britain), 6 May 1849, page 7.
Green, L.. 1969. HARBOURS OF MEMORY, Howard Timmins
The Leeds Mercury (Leeds, West Yorkshire, England), 28 September 1885.
Mapanda, C.. 2011. Utilisation of Pork rind and Soya Protein in the Production of Polony. Thesis presented in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Science in Food Science at Stellenbosch University. (Utilisation-of-Pork-Rind-and-Soya-Protein-in-the-Production-of-Polony-by-Chrispin-Mapanda-2011)
The Province, (Vancouver, British Colombia, Canada), page 6, 18 August 1928
The Standard (London, Greater London, England), 16 July 1829
The Times (London, Greater London, England), 29 June 1829, page 3.