Unless you’re from the great Garden State, New Jersey, you likely aren’t familiar with the dark horse of breakfast meats. Part mystery, with a dash of allure, let us introduce you to pork roll. On the surface, one might confuse it with Canadian bacon or even bologna (which it most certainly is not), but you’d be hard-pressed to visit a bagel shop or diner in New Jersey that doesn’t serve pork roll as one of their breakfast meat options alongside other everyday staples like bacon and sausage. To add even more mystery to the cheap eat, if you crossed the bridge over to Manhattan, it would be near-impossible to find.
Anyone born and raised in New Jersey has been feasting since birth on the sliced meat that not only holds a candle to other breakfast meats but blows them out of the water. It’s been there to console after a night of too many libations, and it even has its own national day of celebration. We would gladly pass up the overpriced brunch avocado toast for a pork roll, egg, and cheese, with salt, pepper, and ketchup on a roll (the most popular way to order it). This meat is so popular that there are two entire food festivals dedicated to it, yet the words "pork roll" are rarely spoken across the state lines. Let’s solve the mystery and discover the truth about pork roll.
Pork roll is a processed pork product
Before we can take a look at the cultural significance and history of the salty meat, just what exactly is pork roll? According to Eater, pork roll is a processed pork product. Prior to it being smoked, it’s mixed with a combo of spices, salt, and preservatives and then sugar-cured. Originally only available in a tube-like casing (similar to how you’d expect unsliced meats at the deli counter to look), it is now available pre-sliced and packaged in the refrigerated meat section.
Pork roll comes fully cooked and in circular form, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a person who would consume it in that state. The preferred method of cooking is frying it up directly on a flat top or in a stove top skillet. While it is our favorite breakfast meat, there are no limitations to when and how you may consume it. It’s perfectly acceptable in the morning on a bagel or devoured in the evening on a roll. It won’t earn any accolades for its health benefits, but it is delicious, plain and simple. The flavor of this salty processed meat product is unique and sets it apart from others.
Pork roll’s origins may be on the battlefield
Pork roll has been clouded by mystery since its creation long ago. The early history of the salted breakfast staple is tied to George Washington and happens to be highly debated to this day, much like the "pork roll" versus "Taylor Ham" debate (more on that one later). The Battle of Trenton was a small engagement that took place during the American Revolutionary War in 1776. It was December in New Jersey, which meant it was cold, and a solution had to be found for just what would keep Washington and his soldiers from going hungry.
It’s long been rumored that pork roll was the answer. Given its heavily processed nature, the packaged rolls of minced meat (plus likely some questionable ingredients) could easily survive those harsh winter conditions. It came with the added bonus of being super portable, as they could carry around the salted pork product in roll form. Whether true or not, we’ll gladly hold on to the mental image of a stoic and fearless George Washington bravely crossing the Delaware River with a log of pork roll in tow.
"Taylor Ham" is a brand name (and the OG pork roll)
While the validity of pork roll playing a crucial role in the American Revolution is still up for debate, it’s no question that we likely have John Taylor to thank for its existence today. The man may not have totally invented it, but he certainly perfected it. A state senator and prominent businessman, Taylor opened a factory in 1870 to produce Taylor’s Prepared Ham, as it was known back then.
Taylor Provisions is still cranking out pork rolls in Trenton today. Available in both six-pound and three-pound sizes, the recipe remains a secret to this day, and you’ll have a tougher time getting into their facility than Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. In the 1870s, butcher George Washing Case also developed his own recipe. The lesser-known competing company, Case Pork Roll, is still in business to this day as well.
Pork roll was originally labeled as a ham product
As our history lesson taught us, John Taylor opened Taylor’s Prepared Ham in the 19th century. "Why is it called ham?" you may be asking yourself. Taylor was met with some legal issues when the Pure Food and Drug Act passed in 1906. Given their newfound legal definition of "ham," Taylor’s Prepared Ham did not fall into this category, as it was prepared with chopped pork and spices. Because of these new legal regulations, Taylor was forced to adjust the product back to its original name, Taylor Pork Roll.
According to I Heart Pork Roll (yes, that’s a real site), fans were unwilling to adapt to change and continued to call it "Taylor Ham." The legal battle didn’t stop there for John Taylor, as he went on a bit of a crusade to sue any competing company that was selling "Trenton style pork roll." Ultimately, it was up to a judge, who decided that "pork roll" cannot be trademarked.
Pork roll is pretty much exclusive to New Jersey
There are some things that are just distinctly New Jersey. Bruce Springsteen, bagels, Atlantic City, and salt water taffy are what make Jersey … Jersey. While the state is also known for its production of stellar corn and ripe "Jersey tomatoes," these foods aren’t exactly limited to the Garden State. Pork roll, however, is exclusively made and produced for consumer consumption in New Jersey. According to NJ.com, pork roll purveyors will only distribute inside the Garden State and on occasion to neighboring Eastern Pennsylvania.
Is it the water? Is it the climate? While those two conditions can be attributed to the success of wine or even pizza in some areas, no one really knows for sure why pork roll hasn’t caught on in other parts of the country. It’s truly an unprecedented feat for a food item to be so strictly limited to one state. Either way, Jerseyans love a good fight and will proudly go to bat for their favorite breakfast meat.
Pork roll, egg, and cheese is the official sandwich of New Jersey
While the only limit of pork roll’s application is in your imagination, the most popular use is in the pork roll, egg, and cheese sandwich. Be it for breakfast or dinner, on a Kaiser roll, English muffin, or bagel, the state that has gifted us with the Boss can also account for perfection in sandwich form. Vastly available at hundreds of shops across the state, we can’t imagine the sheer number of these sandwiches ingested by New Jersey residents each year. Basically, at any given moment, you could find the sandwich within minutes. One guy even went as far as sampling almost 50 different versions of the sandwich within a week’s span.
According to Politico, Assemblyman Tim Eustace introduced an act in New Jersey in 2016 that designated the Taylor Ham, egg, and cheese sandwich as the official New Jersey State Sandwich. The official title is justifiable, might we add, as the meaty wonder has been met with much fanfare over the years, accounting for countless social media fan sites, festivals, merchandise, and even cookbooks.
The great "pork roll" vs. "Taylor Ham" debate still lives on
New Jerseyans are fiercely proud of their roots. Their pride knows no bounds, especially when you say you are either from North Jersey or South Jersey. It’s been known to cause a few fights. Regional pride is real, and the great "pork roll" versus "Taylor Ham" debate further fuels this arch rivalry. Chalk it up to their stubborn ways, but folks in North Jersey weren’t willing to let it go in the early 20th century when John Taylor was forced to drop "Ham" from his brand name, while South Jersey easily adapted to the term "pork roll."
The war still rages on today. The Digest Online suggests that if you happen to step foot anywhere north of I-78, you’d best be calling it "Taylor Ham" if you’d like to avoid a confrontation at the local delicatessen. To an out-of-stater, this might sound absurd, but to anyone born and bred in New Jersey, they understand the severity of the situation. Call it cultural warfare, but it’s still alive and even thriving in New Jersey. "Pork roll" is, however, a generic term, unlike the brand name "Taylor Ham," not unlike the similar confusion associated with generic adhesive bandages and the brand name "Band-Aid." The debate reached national levels when President Obama famously said during his 2016 Rutgers University commencement speech: "I come here for a simple reason … to settle this Pork Roll vs. Taylor Ham question." Sorry Barack, that’s one debate even you won’t be likely to settle.
Pork roll is a dominating breakfast item on many New Jersey menus
The great Nick Jonas, a North Jersey native, once declared that the Taylor Ham/pork roll, egg, and cheese sandwich is "the best thing you’ve ever tasted." Whether indulged in at home or at any of the state’s numerous delis, bagel shops, or diners, USA Today stated that there’s really no other food that positively screams "New Jersey" like this sandwich. It won’t take much searching, or cruising up and down the parkway as one does in the state, to find a solid preparation of Jersey’s beloved sandwich.
Not limited to the most important meal of the day, pork roll can also be found in inventive ways across lunch and dinner menus, given its versatile nature. It’s usually a safe bet that many menus will carry a pork roll on a bun in the evenings, but some restaurants are resorting to more adventurous ways of shelling out this meaty favorite. Checkers Food and Spirits, located in the meat’s birthplace of Trenton, sells a pork roll-topped cheeseburger for lunch. Pork roll has even been known to be chopped up and served atop pizza. For the refined palate, The Committed Pig in Morristown serves up pork roll, American cheese (the only suitable cheese for the sandwich), a fried egg, bacon, and avocado on a freshly toasted brioche bun.
Do not confuse pork roll with Canadian bacon
Call it what you’d like, "Taylor Ham" or "pork roll," but you’ll go down quicker than Snookie after a night of partying "down the shore" if you ever refer to it as Canadian bacon. Bacon alone is confusing, given its various versions. There’s Irish bacon, back bacon, American bacon, and so on. While similar in its circular nature and appearance of texture, Canadian bacon is not cured like pork roll. It also happens to be much leaner than pork roll and has a sweeter flavor profile, as opposed to the saltiness of pork roll.
Another comparison often associated with pork roll is bologna, especially when it is fried up on a skillet. The only comparison between pork roll and these meats are in size and versatility. Hawaii’s own Spam has also been known to draw comparison, but you may want to keep these opinions to yourself when in the presence of anyone from the Garden State or even when perusing Reddit threads.