Meat of the People
Boar’s Head is everywhere. But what do we really know about it?
Photograph by Pasa47/flickr.com.
Boar’s Head, the deli meat, has become an inevitable part of the American sandwich. Just look where Boar’s Head is selling in New York City. It’s at Penn Station. At Yankee Stadium. In Terminal 5 at JFK. You find Boar’s Head meats at Zabar’s on the Upper West Side, next to $28-per-pound Chilean sea bass. You find it at my corner Brooklyn bodega, next to a mound of thickening macaroni salad. Alongside those bologna and salami oblongs, signs shout the Boar’s Head slogan: “Compromise elsewhere.”
Yet for all of Boar’s Head’s muscle—its annual revenue is estimated at $1.2 billion—it is shy, even reclusive. “There are few meat companies more mysterious about their business affairs,” National Provisioner wrote a few years ago. Boar’s Head, a spokeswoman says, is privately held and doesn’t release much financial data. So while its Sweet Slice Smoked Ham may be ubiquitous, Boar’s Head’s soul remains elusive. It is a mystery meat.
I’ve taken 11 ways to think about Boar’s Head and piled them on top of one another, like the layers of a bodega hoagie. By the end, you’ll understand how Boar’s Head captured our hearts—and why it won’t let them go without a fight.
The Hometown: Think of Boar’s Head as a native New Yorker. According to its official history, the company was founded in the city in 1905 by Frank Brunckhorst. A handsome gent, Brunckhorst put his provisions in a horse cart and took them to grocers. When Brunckhorst found New York’s hams wanting, he started manufacturing them himself in Brooklyn. Brunckhorst’s New Yorkiness is an essential part of the Boar’s Head Weltanschauung. In 2001, when Boar’s Head was celebrating its 10th decade, it became a true New Yorker. It moved the company headquarters to Florida.
The Logo: Think of Boar’s Head as a boar’s head—a corporate logo. The head, which faces to the right and has its mouth open in a victorious smile, feels Old World. Less Brooklyn than Britain. I remember the first time I saw it as a kid. I was at Tom Thumb in Fort Worth, Texas, standing next to my mom. The logo was bewitching. Unlike that anthropomorphized huckster Chuck E. Cheese, the boar was like an emissary from a more refined civilization. It did not seem to be peddling slimy, tasteless lunchmeat. I asked Mom if we could buy Boar’s Head, and, come to think of it, I’ve been asking for Boar’s Head ever since.
The Pushiness: How did the boar get from Brooklyn to Fort Worth? Well, Boar’s Head is a really, really aggressive company. “It’s not known by very many consumers,” says Mark Lang, a former director of marketing and research at Publix Super Markets, “but in the industry they’re known for aggressive distribution and expansion strategy.” Boar’s Head empowers an army of independent distributors to get its meat into deli counters. When it elbows its way in, sometimes it elbows out rival meat brands with exclusivity agreements. In 2009, Harris Teeter, a chain of grocery stores in the South and on the East Coast, announced it would sell Boar’s Head meat and not that of its archrival, Dietz & Watson. A Dietz & Watson executive later called the two companies “mortal enemies.”
The Poshness: Think of Boar’s Head as a “premium” deli meat. Lots of meats claim to be premium, but Boar’s Head’s genius is to make the concept work upstairs and down. At a cavernous suburban grocery store, Boar’s Head is often the best deli meat available. At a tony provisioner, with expensive salami and capocollo, it’s often the worst meat available. In the first case, you feel relieved to get something edible; in the latter, you feel relieved to get a bargain. When you visit the Boar’s Head website, it suggests serving its meats as an “antipasto.”
The Coinages: Boar’s Head is a deli-meat brander. The company likes to fuse together two pleasant-sounding words to create a catchy new name. If you’re eating Boar’s Head turkey breast for lunch tomorrow, you’re likely eating Ovengold. The roasted chicken between your two slices of rye might be EverRoast. I’d assumed Salsalito Roasted Turkey Breast was named for the town in Marin County, Calif. But the town is “Sausalito.” The spicy turkey is “salsa” plus “lito,” which in broken Spanish means “little salsa.” The company will not confirm that’s how the name came about, but if true, it would be very Boar’s Head.
Bryan Curtis, Slate's "Middlebrow" columnist, writes for Grantland, Texas Monthly, and Newsweek. Follow him on Twitter.