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.
The History-Fudging: In 2008, a deli opened in Brooklyn Heights. The event wasn’t particularly newsworthy, except that F. Martinella was owned by Boar’s Head; its purpose was to monitor the Boar’s Head-eating public. But despite Boar’s Head’s real New Yorkiness, the deli was a sham of history. Its sign said “since 1949”—a fib. As the Brooklyn Paper noted, its “F. Martinella” was not some gnomic Italian grocer but a combination of the names of Boar’s Head executives. The Potemkin deli failed in 2009. It was a telling moment, because history, to Boar’s Head, had become malleable. The company has a lot of Frank Brunkhorst in it, but it also has a little F. Martinella.
The Competition: Nicholas D’Agostino III is a member of the Boar’s Head resistance. D’Agostino’s 13 Manhattan supermarkets stock Dietz & Watson, Boar’s Head’s archrival. I call D’Agostino one afternoon to ask why he’s holding out. “When I taste the products against each other,” he says, “I like the Dietz & Watson better. It’s a cleaner product.” Cleaner. It’s an interesting way to think about lunchmeat. Both Boar’s Head and Dietz & Watson are commendably free of gunk like fillers or extenders. But to D’Agostino, the Dietz & Watson turkey just tastes more like turkey. In some elusive way, it is more like the meat it purports to be.
The Fear: There’s another wrinkle to Boar’s Head’s competitive streak. In 2009, a handful of Florida stores that stocked Dietz & Watson meats were having fundraisers for breast cancer. This didn’t sit well with some Boar’s Head distributors who hawk the product. As the Fort Myers News-Press reported, dozens of Boar’s Head trucks showed up at the fundraisers. The trucks took up parking spaces and blew their horns and acted like turkey-wielding commandoes. A Boar’s Head spokesman apologized afterward, explaining that the distributors thought the cancer fundraisers were actually taste tests which pitted Boar’s Head against Dietz & Watson. (At least one fundraiser did include a taste test.) Boar’s Head, the spokeswoman added, wanted to “show the brand out there in force.” Look at the boar’s head logo again. You see more than a smile of victory. You see the slightest hint of fear.
The Authenticity: One morning, I walk to Brooklyn’s Mile End delicatessen, my favorite meat smoker. I hand Noah Bernamoff, the chef-owner, a piece of Boar’s Head beef pastrami. “Yeeeeah,” Bernamoff says quizzically, after taking a bite. “Huh.” It isn’t that the pastrami tastes bad—Boar’s Head meats are rarely bad. It’s that, as Bernamoff puts it, “This is not a thing I know.” Bernamoff pulls out one of his briskets and slices off a piece so we can see the cross-section. In Bernamoff’s brisket, we can see two muscles, the “flat” and the “deckel,” separated by a ribbon of fat. When we pop it in our mouths, it has the overwhelming taste of beef, of real smoked flavor. Then Bernamoff and I look at a cross section of Boar’s Head pastrami. We see what appears to be only the “flat,” with a jagged top edge that suggests nearly all the fat was trimmed off. This makes Boar’s Head fit for popular consumption—a meat of the people—but it also makes it chewy and bland. Boar’s Head is perfect, Bernamoff says, for a “corner store where you eat it on a white spongy roll with mayonnaise and lettuce.” In other words, Boar’s Head is to true deli pastrami what F. Martinella was to Italian delis. Which is to say, it’s a totally decent approximation.
The Palship: Back in my swinging bachelor days, I used to come home from the bars late at night. My ritual, when I had nothing better to do, was to buy a Boar’s Head sandwich. A white hero piled with Boar’s Head honey ham, Boar’s Head American cheese, mayo and mustard—lettuce and tomato, sure, fine, if you have it. … I look back at this period the same way I do the year I wore cowboy shirts around town. But Boar’s Head and I bonded. Boar’s Head was available to me, thanks to its take-no-prisoners distributors. Its meat was as predictable taste-wise as a McDonald’s cheeseburger. On those nights, Boar’s Head’s ubiquity became convenience; its blandness became reliability; and a $7 sandwich transaction offered, in a strange way, an emotional connection. I didn’t think of the boar as a deli-counter bully. I thought of it as a friend.
The Last Bite: Think of Boar’s Head, finally, as a pushy New Yorker. A pushy New Yorker who, after years of attention-hogging, becomes perversely lovable. Boar’s Head is Donald Trump. It is Al Sharpton. What is Boar’s Head? It is the meat that will not go away.