February 26, 2009
I’m from New Jersey, and I’m exit 72. I’m from New Jersey and I’ll drive circles around you on the turnpike. I’m from New Jersey, and I eat pork roll. For the unfamiliar, dare I say, unknowing, Pork roll (also known as Taylor ham to us North Jersey folk) has been a Jersey breakfast staple since its invention by John Taylor in the late 19th century. It’s the quintessential Jersey breakfast best served on a buttered roll with melted American cheese and a fried egg. The flavor is unique, the texture kind of like Canadian bacon (but not really-did I say unique already?) and the possibility of replication impossible. From here, I could tell you the whole history, my preferred cooking method, and why people go bananas over it– or I could just link you to a recent Star Ledger video that explains all that and tell you my story instead.
The first time I tried the thin grease slathered circles, I was not in New Jersey, but upstate New York, at a local diner. I had just polished off my stack of pancakes, my father sipping his last bit of coffee, when he called the waitress over. “I need a Taylor ham on a roll, to go.” I remember being confused, since the term was yet to enter my vocabulary. We received the foil wrapped sandwich minutes later, and headed home. As we drove back, I anticipated the fate of this my new-foiled wrapped friend. What was it? Why had I never heard of it before and what the hell was my father doing with it? I flung myself from the car and ran into the garage, where I was to spend the next few hours running rampant through my father’s workshop: when I came across the horror. My father was down on one knee, tearing pieces of bread and meat from a bundle in his hand, and feeding it to our golden retriever! This new food, something that had filled my father’s truck with a smell that had tantalized me the whole way home: was being fed to the dog! I’m not sure what I said at that moment, but my uproar was enough for my father to lift off the top of the bulkie roll and hand me a slice. I remember hesitating for a second before devouring the whole thing in one bite. The taste was smoky and mild, sweet and salty, deep and jolting. The texture was soft but dense, and the tangy flavor coated my mouth like no other food before it. Ever since, whenever the opportunity arises, I order pork roll. When I’m far from home and I crave that distinct flavor, I buy hard salami and fry it, to be eaten with my eggs. This preparation is kosher style, since the salami is of beef origin, is served “pancake style” in most diners, but sigh, is not the same.
My first experience in a real kitchen was at my uncle’s diner in Fairview, New Jersey. (The Original Yankee Tower Diner) His greasy spoon was a family business, started by his father when the area was mostly made up of factories and its workers looking for a cheap, quick meal. They were a famous institution, and when they closed their doors a few years ago, their secret meatloaf recipe was proudly featured in the local paper. This is where I first learned how to cook pancakes on an open grill, carry six plates to a table, and peel lots and lots of onions. This is also where I learned how to cook pork roll. My uncle’s kitchen was old, it was dirty, and it was a diner. Everything on the menu was cooked on the large, open flat top or fried in the fry-o-later. After a few weeks in the kitchen, my uncle decided to give me a chance on the grill. The orders were shouted into the kitchen through the pass, by some of the toughest Jersey broads I ever knew. When it was slow, or when he thought I was ready, he’d call on me to take on an order. Then, it came “eggs over easy with Taylor ham.” I took six pale pink circles from the stack on the sandwich bar, and carefully placed them side-by-side on the grill. Immediately they begin to bubble up in the middle, seeing the panic in my eyes, my uncle reached for the metal spatula in my hand, and used the sharp edge to cut a line to the center of the pattie, “like this,” he said. It quickly deployed, and laid flat on the grill, for an even golden exterior. The meat sizzles and pops, waiting for the right moment to be flipped. Two eggs go on the grill, and before I know it, the whole plate is on the pass. My mission was accomplished.
Now more than ever, I am thankful for all things grease laden, especially my good old friend pork roll. Yes, bacon is great, pate has its days and prosciutto di parma will always have a place in my heart, but nothing holds a candle to my favorite past time. I can’t imagine how my teenage years would have been without all those sandwiches I lovingly and drunkly consumed in the wee hours of the night. My sloppy self, hovering over a diner counter, coffee in one hand – sandwich in the other, friends to one side, a regretful intoxicated hook up, the other. But for my now older and wiser self – I’m just happy to be near it, closer to it now then a year ago when I lived in New England. Available to me now on a continuous basis, regretful decisions and male companions optional.