Pork Roll

It’s called pork roll. It’s always been called pork roll. It says it in bold, crimson letters on the flimsy, cardboard box, leaving no reason for anyone to argue. In a court of law, there isn’t room for argument against visual evidence. Yet, in this scenario, there is room. About 100,000 square miles of room in the northeastern United States to be exact. From Maryland to upstate New York down to Cape May, the argument has been going on for almost two hundred years. And while in the court of regional food obsessions all is fair in love and meat, let’s make sure one thing is clear before we go on: it’s called pork roll.

There is a specific reason for why I am interested in this debate. Normally, I wouldn’t use my regional position to belittle culinary minorities, but let me say that my rights come from legitimacy. That reason for legitimacy? I was born into it. I was born into the tradition of pork stock and minced meat on a Sunday morning, piled sloppily onto a toasted bagel with egg and cheese. I am not a pork roll bastard, and because of that, I am allowed to tell you what I already knew: it’s pork roll.

Growing up in Southeastern Pennsylvania, I never had to question this mystery meat, in which the first listed ingredients are pork shoulder and pork stock. I was eve accustomed to eating scrapple, which is pork roll’s grittier and sloppier cousin. Since I was used to scrapple showing up at the Christmas parties, I always thought of pork roll as being a the more sophisticated of the two byproducts. From spending summers down at the Jersey Shore, I was exposed to the northern lingo for the first time, when someone in Bergen County, New Jersey handed me a “Taylor Ham,” egg and cheese at a local diner after a soccer tournament when I was sixteen. I ate it, unsuspecting of the animosity the waiter undoubtedly felt towards me when I ordered in my regional lingo. I have come to know his anger.

When I entered college, I felt the hate in the air whenever someone brought up the subject, simply because it was the first time I had interacted with “Taylor Ham”-ers. Taylor Ham-er’s are known to be more passionate, but that’s only because they know they are wrong. In a class full of people from Long Island and North Jersey, I sided with the southern and central New Jerseyans. I have always been a non-confrontational person, and exited debates before my breakfast ego could really be bruised. I was intimidated. I was intimidated by the rightful name of a processed, vacuum packed, cured meat. “It’s fucking pork roll,” cried Michael Luciano, a senior at Marist College from Hamilton, New Jersey. “Anyone who says otherwise is stupid or a liar.” “I can’t even talk to you right now. You just don’t even know what you’re talking about. It says it right on the box. Look it up, it says ‘Taylor’,” rebutted Kathryn Fano of Essex, New Jersey. While Fano is right, it does say “Taylor” on the box, it’s followed by the words ‘pork roll,’ not ham. “The factory is right by my house,” said Luciano. “It says it in huge letters outside the building. Bite me.”

While Luciano’s argument is adamant and maybe a little too passionate, he has the facts on his side. It could never be called Taylor Ham, because it isn’t ham. Taylor Pork Roll originated in Hamilton Square, New Jersey. New Jersey State Senator John Taylor is credited with creating the first official “Taylor’s Prepared Ham” in 1856. Taylor’s error? He wasn’t preparing ham. Taylor was forced to change the name of his product after it failed to meet the requirements of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 that would categorize the meat as ‘ham’. “It’s not ham, it’s just not,” said Luciano, and he’s absolutely right.

Wanting to know just how far this controversy reaches, I did my regional overview. “Do you have pork roll?” I asked the man who picked up the phone at Harold’s New York Deli in Lyndhurst, New Jersey. “We have Taylor Ham, if that’s what you’re asking,” he said with a laugh and hung up. Brian at Z Deli in State College, Pennsylvania, knew what it was, but didn’t carry it. 4th Street Delicatessen in Philadelphia had pork roll, but apparently not any time for my phone call. Ricky’s in Baltimore didn’t know what I was talking about.

It seems like the regional controversy can be settled by a simple trip to the source: Hamilton, New Jersey, home of Taylor Pork Roll. It’s easy to find; it lays right on Wikipedia. The Pork Roll vs. Taylor Ham debate can be solved in less than four clicks, and yet it rages on. A spirited user posted on the Wikipedia Talk page under Pork Roll:

“My mom is from New Jersey and we have always called it Taylor Ham instead of Pork Roll and in my opinion, Taylor Ham just sounds more appetizing. Pork Roll sounds like some fatty thing that overweight people shove into their large mouths while they lay on their couches drinking beer and eating greasy potato chips and watching Nascar. It also sounds like the fat rolls of a pig that they rip off, shove in a cardboard box they found in a dumpster, and put on the shelf in the grocery store for all the fat lards in our country to buy.”

Another user added it’s like the copy machine versus Xerox debate. “Somebody, pls fix!” they pleaded.

While that’s only a handful of examples, it still exemplifies the specific pride that people have so much of (or none of) for this dietary indulgence. This regional delicacy is different because it is subjective. Hawaiians may have SPAM, but at least everyone always knows what to call it. Philadelphia natives may think greasy slabs of chopped meat and cheese are the staple of the American diet, but at least people from New York don’t call them “Cheese Beefs” instead of Philly cheesesteaks.  

Whatever you call it, no matter what side you are on, you take pride in your answer. Pork Roll or Taylor Ham. You say it definitively and loudly, and you don’t waiver. You don’t back down. It reveals the common truth that even those who have never heard of the salty breakfast meat share with the people of New Jersey: people are proud of where they come from.

But even I agree with Michael Luciano that one thing is for certain: “It’s fucking pork roll.”

Emily SpennatoComment