Monday, February 28, 2005
In Search of...Taylor® Ham, the "Heroin of Pork" 
by Lenka Reznicek [permalink] 
Taylor ham, a.k.a. pork rollQ: Have you ever eaten Taylor® ham/pork roll? (Not to be confused with a tailor's ham, which is rarely eaten except in the most dire of circumstances)

(a) What?
(b) Hell no, I'm vegetarian/Muslim/keep Kosher
(c) (*tears come to eyes*) Oh, man, pass me the ketchup (or mustard, if you're from North Jersey)!

If you answered (a) or (b), or you haven't spent at least a few years of your life in the Trenton, New Jersey or Philadelphia area, you may want to skip this post dealing with an obscure preserved meat product; one that inspires intense longing in Garden State expats, and expressions of complete incomprehension in just about everyone else. The object of our devotion is New Jersey's sine qua non of the sausage family, more ancient than but analogous to SPAM™ - only without the global ubiquity or junk-commerce connotations. If SPAM™ is the Elvis of processed pork, then the Taylor Ham is more like James Dean, full of swagger and nuance, machismo and mystery.

There is no substitute for real pork roll, and outside of its geographic home one must sagaciously seek out proper channels to obtain a taste.

Scroll back to the Gerald Ford years. At Kuser Elementary School in Trenton, Wednesdays on the monthly spirit-duplicated lunch menu were invariably marked "pork roll" days (Fridays were "school pizza," toasted hamburger roll halves spread with tomato sauce and a broiled slice of process cheese on top - but that's for another post). Kids would file by the stainless-steel counter and receive their plate containing a plop of canned vegetables, a few soggy Tater Tots, and a hamburger roll containing two slices of Taylor® ham topped with ketchup. This being Central Jersey, mustard on pork roll was considered blasphemy.

I'm not sure pork roll is even considered an acceptable food in New Jersey public schools any more - a couple of slices contain enough salt, nitrates and saturated fat to produce an instant coronary, back in the 1970's who cared? - but its distinctive scent and flavor recall a whirlwind of memories. Its earthy, salty, slightly tart smokiness carries hints of both our nation's and our childhood's early history. When slices of Taylor ham begin to sizzle, you can almost see the campfires of George Washington's beleaguered troops as they prepared to cross the Delaware for liberty, justice, and the pursuit of nourishment, with strains of the Boss' "The River" dolefully echoing in the valley.

Rick Nichols of the Philadelphia Inquirer relates the essential lore of the Taylor Ham:
You may be among those for whom the concept of pork roll - dating to the prized hanging "minced hams" of Trenton's colonial past - is foreign or incomprehensible, or both. It is a taste rarely acquired outside pork roll's Philadelphia-Trenton home base. But once acquired, it's impossible to deny or forget.

It is neither that of salami (not that hard) nor Lebanon bologna (not that spicy), though it shares their shape and white flecking of fat. It isn't as greasy as Spam, though it shares many component parts. It has a bit of the flavor of what is sometimes known as smoked summer sausage. But in the best-known Taylor's brand, there's a distinctive tang and a puckeringly astringent, lemony finish.

The origin of this has always mystified me (the recipes are kept obsessively secret), though Wendy Nardi, curator of the Trentoniana collection, provided a clue... [continue reading]
For some Jersey celebrities, Taylor ham is more than a meal - it's medicine for what ails you:
Both Case and Taylor Pork Rolls were introduced in the later 1800s. But Hometown Tales research has found that the Pork Roll might have been in existence during the Revolutionary War. Our interview with a resident historian uncovered a salted, cured ham that came in a "Roll" so the Continental Army could easily transport it.

We ask New Jerseyans, "Where do you have yours? How do you have yours?" John Bon Jovi, from a Playboy Magazine interview:
Jon Bon Jovi eats pork roll"The roadside diner right off the circle in Wall Township is a fabulous greasy spoon, one of the real silver-bullet diners. Taylor ham—a pork roll—is a Jersey fixture. Taylor ham with cheese on a hard roll is love. The big question is: ketchup or mustard? Everyone in north Jersey puts on mustard, everyone in the south, ketchup. I’m a mustard guy myself. A cherry Coke is wonderful with chipped ice. Diners are made for Sunday mornings or the day after when you need grease to soak up everything you did the night before. Then you order breakfast and lunch at the same time. That’s the greatest. It cures a hangover." -- Jon Bon Jovi
Donna Beers of PorkrollXPRESS.com - an online source for what her partner calls the "heroin of pork" - says in a NewJersey.com story on Trenton's mystery meat,
Pork roll is the star of New Jersey's official breakfast sandwich: Taylor ham, fried egg and American cheese on a hard Kaiser roll. The sandwich, often referred to as a "triple-bypass" for the caloric and fat content, is a wee-hour-of-the-morning favorite of Jersey natives at diners.

Taylor ham was created by John Taylor, a New Jersey state senator, in 1856. Fourteen years later, George Washington Case, a farmer and butcher, created his own pork roll. Today, the companies are headquartered in Trenton, just down the street from each other, and they're tight-lipped about their secret recipes. Though technically a trademark name, the term "Taylor ham" has become synonymous with pork roll, whether it's made by Taylor Provisions or not. Surprisingly, this has caused little friction between the two companies.

"It's a friendly competition," said Case Pork Roll President Tom Grieb, a seventh-generation descendant of the founder. "They're very nice people. They never bother us and we don't bother them." Grieb did reveal that his pork roll is made primarily with ham trimmings. After the addition of spices, the pork is hickory smoked and wrapped.

The sausage-shaped pork roll usually comes in one-, three- and six-pound sizes. Removal of the thin cloth layer reveals the white-flecked, pink meat inside. Once sliced and cooked, it more closely resembles Canadian bacon, although it is most definitely not as lean. In fact, it needs no extra oil or fat when frying - simply place it in the pan for a few minutes until it's slightly charred on both sides.

That's the way Beers loves to prepare it. She puts it on a bagel, adds some white cheese and heats it in the microwave for 20 seconds. After adding a dollop of ketchup, it's ready. "My partner calls it the heroin of pork," Beers said. "In a way, she's 100 percent right." [continue reading]
Should you choose to purchase and try Taylor ham for yourself (either by mail, or by stopping at a Shop-Rite in Jersey), remember one thing - and one thing only - thou shalt not eat Taylor Ham cold. Despite some minor compositional similarities, it ain't summer sausage. Always cook it, either in the microwave, in a bit of water (yuk), or the traditional way, by grilling it to charry perfection on an old skillet.

MORE: "Pigging out on Taylor Ham," The Philadelphia Inquirer, Philly.com
Towns & Tales: The Pork Roll
Essential Pork Roll recipes: Beyond Bagels: Taylor Ham or pork roll
New Jersey.com: Pork roll is an original Garden State creation
Taylor Ham on Wikipedia
Interment.net, John Taylor's gravestone inscription: "Taylor, John, b. 1837, d. 1909, created Taylor Ham, founder of Taylor Provisions Co and Taylor Opera House, [RN]"
Pork Roll Xpress [online merchant]
New York Times: "Oink If You Love Pork Roll"