New Jerseyans are very proud of the things that are distinctly New Jersey, and there's an official state sandwich that's at the top of the list. In North Jersey, it's Taylor ham, egg, and cheese. In South Jersey it's pork roll, egg, and cheese. But these sandwiches are one and the same. People in the state just can't agree on what to call it. The feud over the name is over 150 years in the making.
So what is this food that's causing such uproar? It looks like a big salami. It’s hickory smoked and cured with sugar, and you cut slices and grill them, and when you add them to a sandwich, it's so good. And for years, there have been two festivals celebrating it, with the same name, on the same day, just half a mile apart.
We talk with a bunch of locals, a pork roll historian, and comedian Chris Gethard to find out why this food is so important to the people of New Jersey and why they can't stop fighting about it. Can The Sporkful unite warring factions and bring peace to the processed meat galaxy?
Interstitial music in this episode by Black Label Music:
- "Summer Of Our Lives" by Stephen Clinton Sullivan
- "Steady" by Cullen Fitzpatrick
- "Mellophone" by JT Bates
- "Birthday Party" by Kenneth J. Brahmstedt
- "New Old" by JT Bates
Photo courtesy of Facebook/Pork Roll; Dan Pashman.
Dan Pashman: A few years back, the New Jersey State Legislature wanted to designate an official state sandwich. Sounds like fun right? But a fight broke out over whether it should be pork roll, egg, and cheese, or Taylor ham, egg, and cheese. Now the thing is, pork roll and Taylor ham—those are two names for the same food. It's a processed meat that looks like a slice of salami. People in New Jersey just can’t agree on what to call it. The governor at the time, Chris Christie, he made his position clear. On his radio show, he responded to a question from moderator Eric Scott:
CLIP (ERIC SCOTT): Pork roll, egg, and cheese or Taylor ham?
CLIP (CHRIS CHRISTIE): It’s Taylor ham, egg, and cheese.
CLIP (ERIC SCOTT): It is.
CLIP (CHRIS CHRISTIE): Yeah, it is.
CLIP (ERIC SCOTT): You say definitively, it's Taylor ham.
CLIP (CHRIS CHRISTIE): I may do an executive order on this.
CLIP (ERIC SCOTT): Taylor ham, egg, and cheese is the official...
CLIP (CHRIS CHRISTIE): The official breakfast sandwich of the state of New Jersey. And I will say this, it's not just Taylor ham, egg, and cheese. It's Taylor egg, ham, and cheese on a hard roll.
CLIP (ERIC SCOTT): Well see, I say on a round roll.
CLIP (NEWS REEL)
CLIP (PRESIDENT OBAMA): 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 that I'm afraid to take on in my final year in office but I know better than to get in the middle of that debate.
Dan Pashman: Maybe President Obama wouldn’t go there, but we will because this is more than just a silly argument about what a food should be called. This controversy has its roots in a blood feud that goes back 150 years. And this food? It’s not just any old local treat.
CLIP (FESTIVAL GOER 1): You can't come to New Jersey without having a pork roll sandwich.
CLIP (FESTIVAL GOER 2): Oh, my God. We're from Jersey. Our parents are from Jersey. I think, as a baby, had it. Just like I do with my daughters.
CLIP (FESTIVAL GOER 3): Pork roll doesn't get any more Jersey than John Bon Jovi or Bruce Springstein. It is up at the level.
Dan Pashman: Today on The Sporkful, we’ll talk to a bunch of locals, a pork roll historian, and comedian Chris Gethard to ask, what exactly is this food?
CLIP (GUY): Daniel Webster didn’t make enough words.
Dan Pashman: Why is it so important to the people of New Jersey?
CLIP (JENNA PIZZI): It's just this weird thing that New Jersey has and wants to hold on to it with the jaws of life.
Dan Pashman: And why can’t they stop fighting about it?
CLIP (CHRIS GETHARD): Those are clearly two of the people in the world who care about Taylor ham most and they can't get along. That’s where I grew up.
Dan Pashman: That’s all coming up, stick around.
Dan Pashman: This is The Sporkful, it’s not for foodies it’s for eaters, I’m Dan Pashman. Each week on our show we obsess about food to learn more about people. And hey, exciting news you guys. The Sporkful is nominated for a Webby Award. We're actually nominated for our episode, "When white people say plantation", that came out last year and a lot of you appreciated that episode and responded to it. And now what I need to ask you to do is vote for us and that episode. So please, you can do it right now. Go to webbyawards.com. You will have to create an account and I know that's annoying but we'll really really appreciate you. Once you've done that, just search for Sporkful. You'll find our award. You'll vote for us. It'll be great. Now it's a very short window this year. The voting already ends in a couple days. So please go now to webbyawards.com. Thank you.
Dan Pashman: Now, the Taylor ham pork roll divide is regional. So right off the bat, I’ve gotta say, full disclosure, I’m from northern New Jersey. That means I grew up calling it Taylor ham. South Jersey calls it pork roll. But in the interest of maintaining some journalistic objectivity, I’ll try to go back and forth in this episode. So what is it? It’s a meat roll, a whole one looks like a big salami. You cut slices from it and the slices are round and flat, about a quarter to a half inch thick. It’s hickory smoked and cured with sugar, so it’s salty and sweet and smoky, and very meaty. It’s usually cooked on a grill or griddle so it gets really juicy and a little crispy around the edges, and the sugar caramelizes and—oh my god, it's so good. The iconic way to eat it is on an egg and cheese sandwich. I like it with eggs over medium so they’re a little runny, but there are other ways. We’ll get to that later.
Dan Pashman: So, why are people in New Jersey so attached to this food? Well one guy who gets it is Chris Gethard. He’s a comic and actor, he hosts the podcast Beautiful Anonymous. He’s born and raised in West Orange, New Jersey—Taylor ham country, if you’re keeping score. He went to Rutgers University, in New Jersey. But you wanna know what really takes Chris’s Jersey cred to the next level?
Chris Gethard: I worked for about four years, full-time, at a magazine called Weird New Jersey. Which is pretty beloved piece of New Jersey culture. It's comes out twice a year and it just covers all different local legends, strange people.
Dan Pashman: So you grew up calling it Taylor ham?
Chris Gethard: Oh I get—Yes, absolutely. And I just did a show. Two nights ago, I did a show. I did a show in Asbury Park and I said to them out right, I was like, "Just so everybody knows, I'm from West Orange and it's called Taylor ham and we all know it." And I was booed out of the room. So I learned that the Jersey Shore are pork roll people.
Dan Pashman: Right. Right.
Chris Gethard: But I'll never be a pork roll person.
Dan Pashman: Yeah.
Chris Gethard: And I get it. I understand pork roll is the product and Taylor ham is the brand name. But it's like you call a kleenex a Kleenex, nobody gets mad at you for not calling it a tissue. It's cause Kleenex stomped the competition and made a claim to it. It's Taylor ham.
Dan Pashman: Why do you think this food is so important to people in New Jersey?
Chris Gethard: Well, I think it's one of the only things in New Jersey that ours. You know? Like it's ours. You go to diners just across the river in New York and they don't have Taylor ham. You go into Philly, and they don't have Taylor Ham.
Dan Pashman: What Chris is saying is that most of our home state is either part of the New York metro area or the Philly metro area. There isn’t a whole lot that’s distinctly New Jersey.
Chris Gethard: It's made in Jersey. A lot of it comes from the Trenton area. It's made there. It's served there and it's kind of been embraced there. And I think there are a lot of foods from different parts of the country that you can only get in those parts of the country but Jersey people, I think, are fiercely prideful about the things that are theirs.
Dan Pashman: Do you have specific memories or experience from growing up that relate to Taylor Ham?
Chris Gethard: First of all, late nights, high school, diners. Taylor ham, egg, and cheese. Fries with gravy. That was my order. I ordered that for years until I realized it was probably killing me. And then you clean up your act a little bit. But I have a couple other things. One, I had an aunt who lived in Montana. And she left Jersey when she was 18-years-old. She lived all over Texas, California, eventually Montana. This woman had a pretty hard life. Bounced around, never had money. And she's someone who would call my mom and say, "Can you ship me some Taylor ham?" That's not just, "I want to eat this thing," that's, "I remember where I came from and the thing that gives me that is biting into this weird meat."
Dan Pashman: So how did this food get to be so important? And how did the fight start? Well, there are two famous pork roll brands out there, Taylor and Case. And these guys are like the Montagues and Capulets of New Jersey processed meat.
Jenna Pizzi: As they were selling on rival carts or rival stores on Broad Street, there was already a feud.
Dan Pashman: This is Jenna Pizzi, author of The Pork Roll Cookbook, and our show’s resident pork roll historian. Back in 1856, a New Jersey state senator and businessman named John Taylor started selling Taylor ham around Trenton, the state capital. A few years later, 1870, a butcher in Trenton named George Washington Case, he started selling something very similar that he called pork roll. Taylor and Case have been at it ever since.
Jenna Pizzi: They have been trying to rival their lineage for many many many years now. many generations. Both are still owned by direct descendants of both families. Both are very protective and no one from Taylor would agree to talk to me for the book, at all. And Case didn't let me inside their facilities or anything like that. So they're very very very protective of their product and of their legacy.
Dan Pashman: Jenna says in the early days, Taylor focused on selling more in north Jersey, which is why people there call it Taylor Ham. Case pork roll was sold more in south Jersey, so south Jersey calls it pork roll. But these days both are sold throughout New Jersey. Taylor is saltier, Case is a little milder and fattier. Some people do prefer one or the other but the truth is most people who order it in a dine don't even know which one they're eating. So the fight isn’t about which brand is better. It’s about the name.
Jenna Pizzi: The real feud started in earnest when the Taylor company was told that it couldn't call it product Taylor ham anymore.
Dan Pashman: That was because of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. After that, according to the government, Taylor ham did not fit the definition of ham. So Taylor went to court and they said, "Now that we have to change and call our food pork roll, we should be the only ones who can call our food pork roll, because we invented it." But…
Jenna Pizzi: A judge ruled that pork roll could not be copyrighted and they couldn't have the naming rights to "pork roll", so everyone can do it. So they decided to call it Taylor Pork Roll.
Dan Pashman: But it is interesting that the original Taylor vs. Case fight was over what to call it.
Jenna Pizzi: Yeah.
Dan Pashman: It's the same fight that we're having today.
Jenna Pizzi: Yeah, but the courts have already ruled on this.
Dan Pashman: Where are you from Jenna?
Jenna Pizzi: I'm from south Jersey.
Dan Pashman: So you grew up calling it pork roll.
Jenna Pizzi: I did.
Dan Pashman: Maybe you and I can make our own little peace, right here, because I'm from north Jersey and I grew up calling it Taylor ham.
Jenna Pizzi: Well, you're wrong.
Dan Pashman: So as Jenna said, the Taylor and Case companies are very protective. We tried to get interviews with them. We called Taylor and the person who answered wouldn’t give us a phone number or even a name for the person who handles interview requests. They just forwarded us to a general voicemail box each time we called. So we left five messages, none were returned. Case was more open, but still tough to pin down. After lots of discussion they told us we could expect a call from their CEO at some point on a Thursday. That whole day we carried our phones with us, we kept checking for missed calls, but at the end of the day nothing. Then after more back and forth...
Tom Greib: Hi, my name is Tom Greib, and I'm CEO of Case pork roll company.
Dan Pashman: And what's your relation to George Washington Case?
Tom Greib: I guess he would be my great great great grandfather. Six generations.
Dan Pashman: What is it about this food that makes it so delicious? Like is it an ingredient, a technique?
Tom Greib: It's basically a technique. It really is. There is a little science behind making this product. That's why you really don't see a lot of people making this, except really me and my competitor.
Dan Pashman: And can you give me some idea of what that technique is that is so crucial?
Tom Greib: It's just time. This product takes three days to make one batch.
Dan Pashman: Right.
Tom Greib: From start to finish.
Dan Pashman: And is the smoking the part that takes the longest?
Tom Greib: It's actually the whole cure process.
Dan Pashman: Mmm, okay.
Tom Greib: Cooking, smoking, curing...
Dan Pashman: How much pork roll do you eat now a days, at this point in your life?
Tom Greib: I, actually, still eat it two or three times a week.
Dan Pashman: And what's your favorite way to have it?
Tom Greib: I like it on a hamburger and I like it with an omelette with eggs.
Dan Pashman: Oh like cut up?
Tom Greib: Yeah, mixed up in it. Yeah, cut up.
Dan Pashman: Tom wasn’t at all what I expected. I mean I figured I'd be talking to the Wizard of Pork Oz. But really he was more of a teddy bear. I asked him about his relationship with the Taylor folks, I figured Trenton’s not that big of a place, they must cross paths
Tom Greib: You know what? I've never met them but I would never have anything bad to say about them. They make a great product. You know what? They've been in business a little longer that I have and they do their thing and we do our thing.
Dan Pashman: I know there's this sort of on-going argument in New Jersey about whether the food should be called Taylor ham or pork roll.
Tom Greib: Oh, my God. I can't stop thinking to myself, don't they have anything better to do? Our politicians...you know?
Dan Pashman: Yeah.
Tom Greib: I wouldn't even comment on that. I won't even get involved in it.
Dan Pashman: Right.
Tom Greib: I don't like any conflict.
Dan Pashman: But if like you're sort in a social situation and someone says, "Hey, you're the guy who makes Taylor ham. I love Taylor ham."
Tom Greib: Well, I will correct them. That way, I'll correct them. Other than that, as long as you eat it I'm good.
Dan Pashman: I was surprised that Tom would be so laid back about something that has everyone else so fired up. But then I thought about it. You know, studies show that people are more likely to fight over something when it’s scarce. Tom’s concerned with the bottom line. So as long as there’s enough pork roll demand for both companies, which there is, there’s no reason to fight. Everyone else in the state, they're concerned with identity and things that make New Jersey, New Jersey? Those are in short supply. Coming up, a new pork roll feud erupts.
TC Nelson: There’s a few guys, they went and got hard hats and they spray painted them this baby blue color. And they put pork roll U.N. on their...it was really funny.
Dan Pashman: Yeah it was funny...until it wasn’t.
TC Nelson: You know his own greed and selfishness is what took it away.
Dan Pashman: Can The Sporkful unite warring factions and bring peace to the processed meat galaxy? We’ll find out, stick around.
+++ BREAK +++
Dan Pashman: Welcome back to The Sporkful, I’m Dan Pashman. Right now, we’re releasing a bunch of our all time favorite episodes from our archive. We're putting them up on Instagram. It's for a limited time only! They’re usually in Stitcher Premium but we wanted to give you a little something extra to brighten your day during this tough time. So right now you can hear one of the most downloaded episodes in Sporkful history, my conversation with Kumail Nanjiani
CLIP (MUMMAIL NANJIANI): I'm a big proponent of keeping your food separate.
CLIP (DAN PASHMAN): Is that like an OCD thing? Like tell me about your sock drawer?
CLIP (MUMMAIL NANJIANI): No. I guess it's not an OCD thing.
Dan Pashman: We’re also releasing science-y episodes like the one that explains why lefties buy less soup. Lots of great ones, find the links in my Instagram stories and please follow me on Instagram. You can click it right now. I am @TheSporkful. Thanks. Now, back to pork roll.
TC Nelson: If your summers cooking out on the grill do not include pork roll, you did not grow up in New Jersey. Sometimes you got to warm up with a pork roll and cheese off the grill while the burgers are grilling but I've never told anyone when they were eating pork roll that they were eating it wrong.
Dan Pashman: Now, as we’ve heard, the pork roll epicenter is in Trenton, New Jersey’s capital. Taylor and Case are both still based there. And you may think of Trenton as a small northeastern city, but it actually has more in common with the rust belt. It’s where the Roebling company made the steel ropes that hold up the Golden Gate Bridge. There’s a famous sign there that says “Trenton Makes, The World Takes.” But that’s not so true anymore.
TC Nelson: Pork rolls are one of the last things the city of Trenton makes.
Dan Pashman: This is TC Nelson, he’s born and raised in Trenton. He owns a bar and restaurant there called Trenton Social.
TC Nelson: So there is a certain pride and a certain history like we’ve lost a lot of the things that used to be made here. So if we could hold on to a few things and especially if they are dear to us, why not celebrate it.
Dan Pashman: Yes, celebrate it! That was TC’s first thought when he heard from a guy named Scott Miller, who suggested having a pork roll festival in Trenton. Scott’s lived in the Trenton area for 25 years but he’s from Pennsylvania, so he didn’t grow up eating pork roll. First time he tried it, he actually didn’t like it. But one day, when a friend was frying some up, everything changed.
Scott Miller: When I ate it and I realized, wow I've been missing out. Pork rolls is seriously a good treat. And I kind of fell in love with it right then and there. Now, I’m obsessed with it.
Dan Pashman: Scott and TC planned to hold the festival at TC’s bar and restaurant, Trenton Social. The event was set for Memorial Day weekend, 2014.
Jenna Pizzi: People were really excited. – People were behind this because Trenton had some bad stuff happening there.
Dan Pashman: Here again is Jenna Pizzi, author of the Pork Roll Cookbook.
Jenna Pizzi: The whole community came together in support of hosting this event that really shined a good light on Trenton, a city that has some crime troubles and some corruption issues and some bad things that had happened.
Dan Pashman: So people seemed psyched. But no one really knew for sure what to expect. Finally, the big day arrived. Here’s TC.
TC Nelson: It was like waking a sleeping giant.
TC Nelson: People started waiting out in line before the gate opened and I was just like, "There's people waiting like—it's like they're waiting outside for a concert." You know, we were expecting over a thousand and I think four thousand people came through the doors.
Dan Pashman: People came from as far away as Florida. And afterward everyone agreed. the event was a huge success.
Jenna Pizzi: And then the second year they got ready to make it bigger and better and and have everything be awesome, and then they just split.
Dan Pashman: Yeah that’s right. Another pork roll feud.
Jenna Pizzi: One guy was like, "I don’t like your ideas," and the other guy was like, "Well, okay, I’m gonna keep going with it."
Dan Pashman: I talked to both TC and Scott about the dispute. We’re not going to get into all the details, but basically, they agree that the initial kernel of an idea came from Scott. Scott says from there it was all him, he just rented TC’s bar. TC says they planned the thing together, they both did a lot to make it a success, it’s really both of theirs. Months after the festival, when the two finally met in person to try to hash things out, Scott brought a lawyer.
Dan Pashman: So you feel like there's no solution to the dispute.
Scott Miller: Yeah, I can't comment on it.
Dan Pashman: You feel like you've tried your hardest too.
Scott Miller: Yeah.
Dan Pashman: Okay.
Scott Miller: It's a legal matter. I can't comment on it.
Dan Pashman: And here’s TC.
TC Nelson: My opinion is that his own greed and his selfishness is what took it away.
Dan Pashman: So for the six years since that first festival, there have been two festivals on the same day: TC’s Trenton Pork Roll Festival and Scott’s Official Pork Roll Festival. Both are in Trenton, just a half mile apart. Both have a pork roll recipe contest. Both have pork roll egg and cheese sandwiches, plus dishes like pork roll sushi burritos, pork roll donuts, Korean pork belly with pork roll, even pork roll cocktails. The only big difference seems to be that TC’s festival has more drinking, because it’s at his bar. Scott’s is more family friendly because it’s in a park. Some people go to one or the other. Some go to both. Here’s Jenna Pizzi.
Jenna Pizzi: I think people were really angry. They felt like another good thing in Trenton had gone wrong. Why can't we just lift each other up and help each other out for something that could be really great for our economy and help us out and change our image. Why can't we work together?
Dan Pashman: But not everyone sees the falling out that way. After all, this is New Jersey, and this is pork roll. So there’s disagreement over how people should feel about the disagreement. I talked about the dueling festivals with comedian Chris Gethard.
Chris Gethard: It's also just two dudes trying to win. It's like a very New Jersey thing to me because it's like, you guys made a festival about a food product that almost no one cares about. 49 of the 50 states don't care. Even a lot of people here are not going to eat it because it's the unhealthiest thing in the world and you've somehow managed to fracture that and splinter that and be mad about it. And you're attacking—those are clearly two of the people in the world who care about Taylor ham most and they can't get along. That's where I grew up.
Dan Pashman: Maybe Chris is on to something. After all, the Trenton area has a history of food feuds. It’s also known for tomato pie— which is basically a tomato-centric pizza. But there are two DeLorenzo’s tomato pie places, started by a pair of brothers that have had this decades long rivalry. So at one of the pork roll festivals, a Trentonian named Joe had this to say:
CLIP (JOE): The rivalry is awesome. I love it. I think it's the best thing to hit Trenton. I think the battling pork roll festivals is the new DeLorenzo's, the new Geno's vs. Pat's, the Ric Flair vs. Roddy Piper. It's awesome.
Dan Pashman: Yeah, Geno’s vs. Pat’s. That's the classic Philly cheesesteak rivalry. Ric Flair and Roddy Piper are famous pro wrestlers with a classic rivalry. So maybe the dueling festivals are meant to be like that. But let’s get back to the big question, pork roll vs. Taylor ham. Is there any hope for peace? At what point do we get tired of fighting? That bill about the official state sandwich never passed, the politicians lost interest. The Montagues and the Capulets? They made up. Even Ric Flair and Roddy Piper reconciled. I’m sure you remember, after they retired, when they went on Celebrity Wife Swap together?
CLIP (RODDY PIPER): I worry about you because...
CLIP (RIC FLAIR): What does that mean?
CLIP (RODDY PIPER): Same thing I was doing. You need to slow down just a little bit just to catch your breath. And I love you and I'm a little scared for you.
Dan Pashman: If Roddy Piper can tell Ric Flair he loves him, can’t the pork roll and Taylor ham people do the same? I asked Chris Gethard for help.
Dan Pashman: So much of what people gravitate towards about you is that you are a person who brings people together.
Chris Gethard: Yeah.
Dan Pashman: You have a real grass roots following.
Chris Gethard: Yes, yes.
Dan Pashman: As a comedian. You could step into this controversy and you could bring people together, Chris.
Chris Gethard: Wow, you're saying I could be someone who might step up and say, we need to find a middle ground where we can all be happy.
Dan Pashman: That's right.
Chris Gethard: I could do that. Or I could follow my heart and say, to hell with that south Jersey bullshit. It's Taylor ham forever! It's Taylor ham forever. That's what it is. You'll never hear the words "pork roll" come out of my mouth. Never. I'm disgusted I have to say them here and now. It's Taylor Ham and if they want to make it pork roll, egg, and cheese on the state constitution, I think north Jersey should succeed. We'll take all the industry with us and south Jersey can keep all the farming. It's Taylor ham. Don't take away my childhood.
Dan Pashman: A couple of updates on this story, the two pork roll festivals, both of which usually take place Memorial Day Weekend, have been postponed because of Coronavirus. TC Nelson’s Trenton Pork Roll Festival is now scheduled for Labor Day Weekend, on September 5th. And Scott Miller of the Official Pork Roll Festival tells us, he’s hoping to do his in August. Finally, there is concern that there may be shortages of pork roll and Taylor ham as some pork plants have been forced to close because of Coronavirus outbreaks. All that being said, you can still order it on Amazon.
Dan Pashman: Please remember to vote for us in the Webby Awards. We really appreciate your support and there's only a couple days left to do it. Go to webbyawards.com, create an account, search Sporkful, vote for us. Again, webbyawards.com. Thank you.