New Jerseyans don’t have to choose between bacon and sausage: they have a third pork product.
Walk into any New Jersey diner and you will undoubtedly see it on the menu, or perhaps smell its salty, greasy scent lofting through the air as it sizzles on the griddle. But if you aren’t from New Jersey, you probably won’t even recognize it: the famous pork roll, or, as those in North Jersey call it, Taylor ham.
Across the United States, most people get a choice of bacon or sausage for breakfast. But as a native of the Garden State, I’ve also had the lifelong breakfast meat option of pork roll.
Pork roll is a processed-pork product that has more in common with Canadian bacon than it does with bacon or sausage, but it doesn’t have the smoky flavor of its northern cousin. It tastes somewhat like fried spam and somewhat resembles fried bologna. Its cooked texture is crisp and firm around the edges, and remains soft and mushy in the center. It can be bought in a log-like roll—most are around a foot long and weigh a pound—or in pre-sliced servings packaged in a box.
As a good Jersey boy, pork roll was one of the first foods I learned to cook on my own. I recall my father taking me to the stovetop and demonstrating the proper slicing technique on the meat’s edges: three to four notches, about half of an inch in. Cutting these notches on the edge keeps the slices cooking evenly in their own grease, instead of bubbling up n the center, making the slices resemble tiny, pink UFOs sputtering in the pan. Some New Jerseyans prefer instead to broil pork roll in the oven which, if done correctly, will produce crispier edges.
While pork roll is sometimes served as a plated breakfast meat, it’s most commonly paired with eggs and cheese on a breakfast sandwich. The traditional Jersey sandwich has two fried eggs, layered pork roll slices, melted American or cheddar cheese, in a sliced Kaiser roll. Other sandwiches commonly seen around New Jersey will have these same ingredients, but are served instead on a torpedo roll, bagel, or even between two pancakes. Many enthusiasts will top the sandwich off with a drizzle of ketchup and a sprinkle of salt and pepper. Loyalist may tell you this isn’t necessary, and some even view the added condiments as sacrilege.
The first recipe for pork roll was invented in 1856 by John Taylor in Hamilton Township. He at first called it Taylor’s Prepared Ham, but the company renamed it Taylor’s Pork Roll in 1906 because it didn’t meet a new legal definition of ham. But the term Taylor ham stuck—at least in North Jersey—and his name brand, Taylor Provisions Co., has been a dominant player in the state’s pork roll market ever since.
In 1870, around 15 years after Taylor brought out his product, a butcher named George Washington Case, who lived and worked 20 miles north of Hamilton in Belle Meade, made his own recipe and called it Case’s Pork Roll. Today, several other brands sell their own versions of the product, but people tend to call it Taylor ham or pork roll, depending on which part of the state they’re from.
Maybe it was the difference in the Taylor and Case recipes that sparked the state’s geographic pork roll split, but no one is quite sure why or when it happened. The state has a smattering of regional divides, from sports to politics, but the pork roll split is, perhaps, the most distinctively New Jersey of these. People who grew up in northern New Jersey, close to the New York State border, call it Taylor ham. To a Jerseyite raised in the southern half of the state, it’s pork roll. Some people grow up in North Jersey and for years don’t realize that Taylor Ham and pork roll are the same thing. I’m originally from Burlington, New Jersey (pork roll territory) but now live in Somerville, New Jersey (Taylor ham territory). I’ve always called it pork roll.
I have only seen pork roll listed on a menu outside of New Jersey once. I was living in Albany, New York at the time and a deli where I went to get fat and greasy sandwiches on lazy weekend mornings added it to its menu one day, out of nowhere. But I never did order pork roll in that upstate deli. It was always something I enjoyed when I made the trip back home to New Jersey.
In recent years, New Jersey hasn’t just enjoyed pork roll; it has celebrated it too. There are now two festivals (running concurrently in Trenton) dedicated to the local processed meat. In May 2018, the Official 5th Annual Pork Roll Festival and the Trenton Pork Roll Festival drew thousands of fanatics to enjoy experimental pork roll dishes: pork roll tacos, pork roll sushi rolls, and even pork roll ice cream. Perhaps more so now than ever before, New Jersey natives are taking special pride in this delicacy. At the festival, you’ll see people in their 20s wearing T-shirts emblazoned with brightly-colored pop-art images of pork roll. Restaurants in the state are trying out new recipes featuring pork roll. The 1911 Smokehouse Barbeque in Trenton has made pork roll meatballs, and Taylor Ham, the company that manufactures pork roll, offers a recipe for pork roll pasta.
Call me old-fashioned, but I’m content with just a pork roll, egg, and cheese. Whether it’s pork roll or Taylor ham, and no matter where I end up settling down, it will always have a place in my heart.