All over the country, hurried mornings begin with a coffee to go and that portable a.m. staple that's endlessly customizable and never fails: the breakfast sandwich. Whether it's a drippy over-easy or a puck-like egg disk from the drive-thru, a hard roll or flaky croissant, a breakfast sandwich is never a bad idea. And then there are the proteins. In most of the country, bacon and sausage rule the kingdom of morning meats, but in and around New Jersey, there’s another contender in the breakfast arena.
Pork roll or Taylor Ham, depending on who you ask (and which part of the state you grew up in), is New Jersey’s go-to addition to an egg and cheese sandwich. The love for this sliced minced ham runs so deep that in 2016, the state passed legislation to introduce pork roll, egg and cheese as the official sandwich of New Jersey.
If you aren't already familiar with this Garden State staple, it's time to tune in (and maybe pick sides).
As is the case with most regional specialties, there’s more than one origin story here. Popular opinion holds that a proto-pork roll has roots in the American Revolution, when the nonperishable source sustained the Continental Army in the Battle of Trenton—the game-changing skirmish that occurred the day after George Washington and his troops famously crossed the Delaware from Pennsylvania to New Jersey.
Eighty years later and approximately 10 miles south, John Taylor, a prominent member of the Trenton community, put a name on the meat. Originally known as Taylor’s Prepared Ham, the product became Taylor’s Pork Roll 20 years later due to pushback from newly introduced consumer protection laws.
Though Taylor may have made a name for himself as the pork roll king, up and down the state, butchers were putting their own spins on the deli meat.
Over at The Pork Roll Store in Allentown, New Jersey, the Battisti family has been pork rollin’ since 1920.
"We didn’t invent pork roll, but we refined it to the razor’s edge of perfection," says Robby Goldstein, otherwise known as the Pork Roll Princess. Though he might be 90 years old, her father, Gabriel Battisti, still acts as the shop’s "meat mixologist" (yes, you read that correctly). "He can make magic with spices," Goldstein says, referring to the store's proprietary pork roll seasoning blend.
Toronto-born Nick Macri, proprietor of La Divisa Meats in Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal Market, had never heard of pork roll before moving to the Mid-Atlantic. Honing his charcuterie-making skills in the Philadelphia area, Macri came up with his own recipe. When he opened his butcher shop back in 2015, the small space wasn’t set up for smoking or curing, so pork roll was the ideal candidate to fill the breakfast meat gap in his lineup. Given the region’s passion for pork roll, Macri’s take on the Jersey staple quickly earned a permanent place in his case. These days, Macri uses a mix of pork shoulder and belly from Country Time and Wyebrook Farms seasoned with salt, pepper and maple sugar. The mix is finely ground, hung for a few days, then roasted and lightly smoked before being sliced to order.
Whether you’re going with small batch or mass market, there are a few cardinal rules when it comes to assembling a Jersey-approved pork roll, egg and cheese.
First up, it’s all about the score. Because of pork roll’s round shape, frying or griddling causes the rounds to curl up into a saucer-like bowl—not exactly ideal for a structurally sound sandwich. To combat the curl, a series of scores around the perimeter helps keep things level.
There’s not all that much conversation to be had around the egg and cheese aspects of the sandwich; anything other than a fried egg and a couple slices of American is pretty much blasphemy.
Bread-wise, a classic kaiser (or hard roll) is the way to go. The swirled-top deli and diner staple is bulky enough to comfortably support a little excess grease from the eggs and pork roll, and fuse together with the help of a couple slices of American cheese. Of course, with the abundance of bagel shops in Jersey, there’s nothing wrong with subbing in a sesame or plain.
And lastly, presentation. Folding the sandwich into waxy sheets of deli paper isn't just convenient; it gives the elements a chance to meld together, steaming the roll until pleasantly squishy and allowing the porky essence to creep into every corner of the sandwich. And if you’re really going for the full sensory experience, you might as well cue up Ween’s ode to their breakfast of choice.
Caroline Coral is a food and travel writer who splits her time between Philadelphia and the Caribbean. Follow her on Instagram at @caroline.f.coral.