It’s breakfast. But also lunch. And don’t forget dinner. Oh, and it’s brunch. It’s a sandwich, a pizza topping, a side dish or a main course. It’s pork roll — and it’s our NJ Vocabulary word of the week. If you’ve ever been in a New Jersey diner (and if you haven’t, you’re living wrong), you’ve seen it on the menu and smelled the smoky aroma in the air.
It can be found in restaurants and grocery stores across the tri-state region, but the pork roll headquarters of the world is Trenton. And its popularity is growing.
Pork Roll — Noun. A pork-based processed meat best described as if sausage, bacon and bologna had a baby.
Example: “My cheeseburger was topped with pork roll and it was great!”
“It’s more popular now than ever,” says Scott Miller, founder of the Pork Roll Festival in Trenton. “I’m not sure why, but over the past few years you see it more and more. It’s making a big comeback.”
Pork roll was created in Trenton in 1856 by John Taylor. And in 1870, George Washington Case created his own recipe. And thus the two big names, and rivalries, in the world of pork roll were formed: Taylor and Case.
“They taste different,” Miller says of the two big brands. “And they cook a little differently too. I think Case has a smokier flavor and is a little less greasy.”
Is It Pork Roll — or Taylor Ham?
But what’s in a name? John Taylor would attempt to call his meat “Taylor’s Prepared Ham” but had to change the name since pork roll is, technically, not ham at all. The name was changed to Taylor Pork Roll, but the nickname Taylor Ham, no matter how scientifically inaccurate, has stuck around for more than 150 years.
“It’s the same thing,” says Miller. “Taylor Ham is just a brand of pork roll, but some people, especially in North Jersey, call all pork roll Taylor Ham. But it’s all the same, really.”
While Taylor and Case are the big names in the game, other brands such as Hatfield have begun making the meat, and it’s even sneaking its way into chain restaurants. “Last summer, even Dunkin Donuts began selling pork roll sandwiches,” says Miller of the sandwich offered at select Dunkin Donuts locations down the shore. “That shows you how popular it is.”
It’s also pretty simple: Its ingredients are pork, salt, sugar, spices and sodium nitrate. It’s hardly a health food, but it is a tasty one. “People remember having it for breakfast in their homes,” says Miller. “It’s a comfort food, a uniquely New Jersey comfort food. It brings back good memories. Everyone around here remembers eating pork roll at some point as a kid. It was on everyone’s table.”
Of course, nostalgia coupled with deliciousness is part of the reason why the meat is gaining popularity once again. “The display for Case at the store has doubled,” says Miller. “More and more people are eating it and talking about. I like to think our festival has something to do with it.”
In fact, the annual Pork Roll Festival is held in downtown Trenton on Memorial Day weekend, and has gained national attention for its variety of food and entertainment. “We have music and recipe contests, and we crown a Pork Roll Queen,” says Miller. “It’s a lot of fun and everyone has a good time. We’re trying to boost the image of Trenton and show the positive side of this city. And we want everyone to know that this is the home of pork roll. That’s our goal.”
The Most Versatile Meat in the World
“I like to pan fry it,” says Miller. “It takes longer to cook than most people think, but it”s easy to just fry it.” The edges of a pork roll slice are cut in four places to prevent the meat from curling up during the frying process. This gives pork roll the distinctive shape of a big, meat flower or wind mill.
You can also grill pork roll or steam it, but Miller warns us all to stay away from the microwave.
“Don’t microwave it,” advised Miller. “It doesn’t work out so well. You can microwave some bacon, and it’s fine, but pork roll is different. I’d definitely recommend frying it.”
After the meat has been fried, the next step is all up to you.
The traditional Trenton way to eat it is as a breakfast sandwich — two fried eggs, two slices of the titular meat, and cheese if you’re daring. But this sort of sandwich is like art; it can be anything you want it to be.
Miller himself forgoes the egg altogether. “I like it without egg. I like a couple of very thin slices of pork roll fried on the hard side, on a lightly toasted kaiser roll with some cheddar cheese and some hot sauce. That’s my sandwich.”
And for those skipping breakfast and going straight to belly-busting lunch, there’s the pork roll cheeseburger. “The best place to get it is Checkers Food and Spirits here in Trenton,” Miller says of the local eatery (which is not to be confused with the fast-food chain). “They make a cheeseburger with a slice of pork roll on top and it’s unbelievable.” Miller jokes that those counting calories and gluten can go the healthy route and get the burger on a pita. (The kitchen at Checkers closes at 2:30, so get there early!)
While the sandwiches are part of the downtown Trenton diet, up in North Jersey and Eastern Pennsylvania, the meat is served as a side. “Some people will get it instead of bacon when they order eggs,” says Miller. “It’s a great substitute for bacon. And I think it tastes better.”
If sandwiches, sides and burgers aren’t your thing, you can also add the pork to, well, anything. “We topped a Trenton tomato pie with pork roll for New Years Eve. It was pretty great,” says Miller, who sometimes conducts experiments in his own kitchen. “The strangest thing we did was make a pork roll sandwich but with a French cruller donut as the bun. That was rich. That wasn’t too healthy.”
For those with a refined palate who still want to try Jersey’s most beloved meat product, there’s the Pork Roll Cookbook by Jenna Pizzi, which includes recipes for using it in soup, deviled eggs, and alfredo — which sounds as delicious as it does deadly.
Where to Get It
Most New Jersey grocery stores sell at least one brand of pork roll in the prepared meat sections. “The Food Bazaar in Trenton has the best price,” offers Miller.
For those who don’t have time to cook, you can find it by walking into just about any building in Trenton. And that’s any building — including the State Building, which serves it in its cafeteria.
But Miller let us in on the secret, best places for a sandwich. “Checkers is the best place for a pork roll burger. You can also check out the Sunrise Luncheonette on Warren Street. The owner has been making pork roll for thirty years, so he knows what he’s doing.”
In addition, Miller says most eateries and lunch places in downtown Trenton offer pork roll sandwiches, grilled cheese — and even pizza. “It wasn’t always like that,” he says. “It used to be that only a few places sold pork roll. But its popularity is at an all-time high right now.”
If you’ve never had it, now’s the time to try it. Call it what you want, the result is the same — easy, classic comfort food.
For more on the Pork Roll Festival, visit the website.
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