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The History of New Jersey’s Pork Roll vs. Taylor Ham Debate

This article is part of our Cocktail Chatter series, where we dive into the wild, weird, and wondrous corners of history to share over a cocktail and impress your friends.

Is it pork roll or Taylor ham?

It’s a question that has divided Garden State residents for decades. For those outside state lines, the circular, breakfast-friendly meat is like Canadian bacon on steroids. It’s a salty, savory, pork-based regional delicacy akin to Pennsylvania’s flagship mystery meat Scrapple. But what it’s actually called has been the topic of a 100-plus-year heated debate throughout north, south, and central New Jersey. Through it all, there’s only one thing the two feuding sides can agree on: It’s delicious, and it’s at its best nestled against eggs and cheese in a breakfast sandwich. But how did the legendary debate begin, and is there a clear-cut answer?

The Sausage Scholars

The story harkens back to 1856, when 20-year-old John Taylor of Trenton invented Taylor’s Prepared Ham after working as a grocery store clerk. The exact alchemy that goes into making the stuff remains a mystery, but we do know that it contains smoked pork, salt, spices, and some preservatives.

Taylor was the only player in the game until 1870, when butcher and farmer George Washington Case began selling “hickory-smoked pork roll” at his Somerset County farm. For all intents and purposes, the two products were more or less the same product, though Taylor’s originally came packed in a cotton sack and Case’s in corn husks. In 1906, the plot thickened with the passing of the Pure Food and Drug Act, which declared that Taylor’s product failed to meet the new legal definition of ham. Thus, Taylor renamed his product with the “pork roll” moniker. He went on to create other mystery meat-based products, such as the short-lived Taystrips — the same thing as pork roll, but molded into rectangular strips.

Since then, other meat moguls have entered the pork roll industry. There’s Loeffler’s, which makes its pork roll under the Mercer Meats label and is based in Trenton like the Taylor and Case brands. There’s also Thumann’s, Leidy’s, and Alderfer, the latter two of which are based in Pennsylvania. These days, the Taylor and Case brands are still the biggest purveyors of pork roll in New Jersey.

The Great Divide

As the New Jersyians on VinePair’s staff can confirm, we’re a stubborn, opinionated bunch. Maybe we just like to have something to argue over, but the debate over the pork product’s proper name has permeated the state’s breakfast culture for decades, and it’s largely based on which region you live in. North Jersey’s unwavering stance is that the stuff is called Taylor ham. In Central Jersey — which does, in fact, exist — and South Jersey, it’s unequivocally referred to as pork roll. Hell, the debate has even reached the highest seat in America: During his Rutgers University commencement speech in 2016, President Barack Obama addressed the topic, saying: “I come here for a simple reason — to finally settle this pork roll versus Taylor ham question. I’m just kidding. There’s not much I’m afraid to take on in my final year of office, but I know better than to get in the middle of that debate.”

So, Is It Pork Roll or Taylor Ham?

Put simply, it’s a matter of preference. Just as “Kleenex” is now a universal term for tissues and “Band-Aids” covers all the tiny bandages at the corner store, this is another example of a proprietary eponym. That said, while all Taylor ham is pork roll, not all pork roll is Taylor Ham. The category itself is, technically, called pork roll. At Wawa convenience stores — many of which are in North Jersey — pork roll sandwiches are actually made with Alderfer brand pork roll, and not the region’s championed Taylor brand.

If you live outside the state, you may not care much about the final winner of this linguistic battle. But if you’re curious about pork roll (or Taylor ham), New Jersey holds several annual festivals that showcase its salty magic.

*Image retrieved from Ezume Images via stock.adobe.com

The article The History of New Jersey’s Pork Roll vs. Taylor Ham Debate appeared first on VinePair.

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