Biting into a pork roll sandwich is kind of like biting into bologna sandwich, except it’s not. And it’s a little like eating ham, except it isn’t. It’s closest to Canadian bacon, but don’t ever compare it to Canadian bacon, especially not in front of a New Jersey native—it’s just not the same.
Pork roll, or Taylor ham as it’s called in most of north Jersey, isn’t quite like any processed meat product in the rest of the United States. It’s a delicious combination of miscellaneous pork product, sugar, spices, and salt. It’s all processed, smoked, packaged, and sold in New Jersey–and almost nowhere else.
Pork roll—and the traditional pork roll, egg, and cheese sandwich—is ingrained in New Jersey culture in a way almost nothing else is. “People here like to think they’re an authority on pork roll,” says Scott Miller, who founded the New Jersey Pork Roll Festival in 2014. “Most things New Jerseyans are proud of are either dead or in jail, so it’s nice to have something we can call our own.”
That, he says, was the impetus behind the pork roll festival: to give New Jerseyans something to celebrate that’s distinctly theirs.
It’s been theirs for a long time, too. Miller says there’s evidence of the stuff in the United States as early as the 1700s. The official version of pork roll originated in New Jersey back in 19th century, when John Taylor set up shop in Trenton, New Jersey, and began to produce something called “Taylor’s Prepared Ham.” But Taylor had one key idea that distinguished his product from the German and Polish sausages dominating the market at that time: He sold the meat rolled in a cloth sack so it could be easily carried, sliced, and fried without removing it from the packaging.
No one really knows what was in Taylor’s Prepared Ham, but there’s a good chance it wasn’t ham, given Taylor was forced to change the name of his product in compliance with the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act. Taylor rebranded his miscellaneous meat as pork roll and sold it under the name “Taylor’s Pork Roll” and “Trenton Pork Roll.”
Other companies caught on and began to market products called “Rolled Pork” and “Trenton-Style Pork Roll,” but when Taylor filed a lawsuit in 1910 to protect his creation, the court ruled the words “pork roll” couldn’t be trademarked. (According to Miller, it’s possible Taylor’s business was bolstered by the Freemasons—his father was a member.)
Around the same time Taylor set up shop in Trenton, another man by the name of George Washington Case began selling his own version of pork roll in Belle Mead, New Jersey. He founded his own company, The Case Pork Pack Co. in 1870—today the company is also based in Trenton and is known as the Case Pork Roll Company. Case’s pork roll was originally wrapped in corn husks, but today it’s vacuum-packed like any other pork roll product.
It’s unclear why the name “Taylor ham” stuck in northern New Jersey and not in the south. Miller hypothesizes that Taylor simply had better distribution, or that dining establishments called it “Taylor ham” on menus to distinguish it from other available breakfast sides or sandwich meats. But one thing’s for sure: the question of whether to call it pork roll or Taylor ham is a key dividing issue among New Jerseyans.
Steve Chernoski, who directed New Jersey: the Movie, has done extended research on the issue, even going to far as to map the dividing line, which he says extends from Union county west through Warren. “No one disputes that it’s Jersey’s meat,” he said. “But we can’t agree on what the hell to call it.”
For the record he and Miller, like the majority of New Jerseyans, are both team pork roll—Miller called “Taylor ham” a “misnomer,” and Chernoski is sticking with the people of Trenton, who invented the stuff in the first place.
Interestingly, the spread of pork roll or Taylor ham or whatever you want to call it seems to be limited to New Jersey and a few immediate neighbors like Pennsylvania. “You can go into Manhattan and barely see it, but if you cross the river into Hoboken there it is,” Chernoski says. “It’s almost amazing how it just seems to stop at the state line.”
Chernoski grew up in what he calls west Jersey and says pork roll was always on the menu in his middle and high school cafeterias—it wasn’t until he went off to college in Ohio when he realized it wasn’t a universal offering.
He’s since returned to New Jersey, the wholesome land of pork roll plenty, to raise his family. “My daughter was born on the date of the first pork roll festival,” he says. “I walked into the hospital cafeteria the morning after she was born, and what’s for breakfast but glorious, glorious pork roll.”
Although it’s still nearly impossible to get a good pork roll, egg, and cheese sandwich elsewhere in the country, Chernoski thinks the meat’s popularity will spread now that New Jersey companies are shipping it nationwide. “We’re much more transient than we were when I was growing up,” he said. “New Jerseyans are going to marry local Florida people or local Texas people or local German people, and maybe we’ll live to see it spread.”
Miller’s brother, who still lives in Pennsylvania, has seen pork roll at local grocery stores, and Miller says he received a pork-roll-related call from a pair of food truck owners out in Los Angeles. They’re starting a Jersey-themed food truck, and it wouldn’t be complete without pork roll.
Gastro Obscura covers the world’s most wondrous food and drink.
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