New Jerseyans Chew Over What To Call Their Favorite Pork Product

Jun 2, 2016
Originally published on June 15, 2016 7:50 am

At the White Rose Diner in Linden, N.J., owner Rich Belfer tosses a dozen round, thick slices of processed pork to sizzle on the grill. To Belfer, it's beyond dispute that those are slices of Taylor Ham.

"It's pork, it's spices, it's salt, it's water. It's common ingredients," Belfer says.

But the flavor is more difficult to explain. "I don't know if anybody can really describe it," he says. "It has a little smoky flavor. It has a little spice. It has a little original Jersey flavor in it."

Whatever you call this product, it's ubiquitous on diner menus from Cape May to the George Washington Bridge. The two main companies that make it — Taylor Provisions and Case's Pork Roll — are both based in Trenton.

As much as New Jerseyans might love this homegrown product, they simply cannot agree about what to call it. In North Jersey, it's called Taylor Ham; in South Jersey, it's known as pork roll.

"People unfortunately get very nasty," says Kate Kelly, owner of the Jersey Pork Roll company, which ships Taylor Ham — or, if you prefer, Taylor Pork Roll — across the state and beyond. "There's arguments all over the Internet."

That debate has now reached the highest levels of government.

"I come here for a simple reason: to finally settle this pork roll versus Taylor Ham question," President Obama said during a commencement address at Rutgers University last month. The president was just kidding, and declined to pick a side.

But state lawmakers are considering legislation that would settle the debate.

"If you look at a menu here in North Jersey, it does not say pork roll," says state Assemblyman Tim Eustace, who was born in Passaic. "We did not grow up with pork roll. So there clearly is a dividing line. Same product, we call it two different things."

That dividing line seems to be somewhere near the Raritan River, which cuts the state roughly in half.

Eustace is sponsoring two bills to designate an official state sandwich: either the Taylor Ham, egg and cheese or the pork roll, egg and cheese.

Gov. Chris Christie — a native of North Jersey — was not shy about expressing his preference. "It's Taylor Ham, egg and cheese. I just declared it right now," Christie said on his radio show last month. "I may do an executive order on this. It's Taylor Ham, egg and cheese. Of course it is."

To those not raised in New Jersey, it's hard to convey exactly what's at stake in this debate. "When you're out of state and you miss it, it's much more than the flavor of the meat," says Kate Kelly of the Jersey Pork Roll company. "It's a childhood memory for people who grew up here, including me."

The recipe for Taylor Ham is said to date back to the 1850s, when it was invented by businessman and state Sen. John Taylor. It's still called Taylor Ham on menus across North Jersey. But don't tell that to anyone raised in South Jersey, where this product is known exclusively as pork roll.

That's also the term preferred by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Kelly says Taylor Provisions was forced to drop the word ham from its labels after a lawsuit more than a century ago.

"That's what I tell people when they get into these horrific arguments," Kelly says. "Look at the box. Stop fighting with your spouse. Find the word ham. It's not there."

I mention that to Belfer at the White Rose Diner in North Jersey. He doesn't believe me, so we walk back to his cooler to check. The label reads, "Taylor Provisions, Goodie brand pork roll."

Belfer agrees, reluctantly, that the word ham is nowhere to be found. When I ask if he would consider switching over to the pork roll camp, he doesn't hesitate.

"Sorry, it's still Taylor Ham," Belfer says. "If I start trying to tell people there's no ham on the label, and we're gonna change the name to pork roll, they'll look at me like I'm crazy."

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

We now turn to a long, simmering dispute in New Jersey over what to call the state's favorite pork product. In North Jersey, it's called Taylor Ham. In South Jersey, it's known as pork roll. That debate has now reached the highest levels of government.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I come here for a simple reason - to finally settle this pork roll versus Taylor Ham question.

(LAUGHTER)

CHANG: That was President Obama during a commencement speech at Rutgers University last month. Obviously, the president was joking. But this is serious business in New Jersey, where state lawmakers are now weighing in. NPR's Joel Rose reports.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: At the White Rose Diner in Linden, N.J., owner Rich Belfer tosses round slices of processed pork onto the grill.

RICH BELFER: You can hear the sizzle. The grill is nice and hot.

ROSE: To Belfer, it is beyond dispute that those are slices of Taylor Ham.

BELFER: It's pork. It's spices. It's salt. It's water. It's common ingredients. The flavor - I don't know if anybody can really describe it. It has a little smoky flavor. It has a little spice. It has a little original Jersey flavor in it.

ROSE: Whatever you call this product, it is ubiquitous on diner menus from Cape May to the George Washington Bridge. The two main companies that make it are both in Trenton. But as much as New Jerseyans might love this home-grown product, they simply cannot agree about what to call it.

KATE KELLY: People, unfortunately, get very nasty, contentious. There's arguments all over the internet.

ROSE: Kate Kelly runs the Jersey Pork Roll Company, which ships Taylor Ham - or, if you prefer, Taylor Pork Roll - across the state and beyond.

KELLY: When you're out of state and you miss it, it's much more than the flavor of the meat. It's a childhood memory for people who grew up here, including me.

ROSE: The recipe is said to date all the way back to the 1850s when it was invented by a businessman and state senator named John Taylor. And it's still known as Taylor Ham on menus across North Jersey, where state Assemblyman Tim Eustace grew up.

TIM EUSTACE: If you look at a menu here in North Jersey, it does not say pork roll. We did not grow up with pork roll. And so, there clearly is a dividing line. Same product - we call it two different things.

ROSE: That dividing line seems to be near the Raritan River, which cuts the state roughly in half. Eustace is sponsoring two bills to designate an official state sandwich, either the Taylor Ham, egg and cheese or the pork roll, egg and cheese. Governor Chris Christie was not shy about expressing his preference on his radio show last month.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "ASK THE GOVERNOR")

CHRIS CHRISTIE: It's Taylor Ham, egg and cheese.

ERIC SCOTT: It is.

CHRISTIE: Yeah, it is.

SCOTT: You say...

CHRISTIE: I declare it right now.

SCOTT: ...Definitively, it is Taylor Ham.

CHRISTIE: I may do an executive order on this.

SCOTT: Really?

CHRISTIE: I may. It's Taylor Ham, egg and cheese. Of course, it is.

ROSE: But don't tell that to anyone raised in South Jersey, where this product is known exclusively as pork roll. That's also the term preferred by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Kate Kelly at the Jersey Pork Roll company says Taylor was forced to drop the word ham from its labels after a lawsuit more than a century ago.

KELLY: When you look, it is not there. And that's what I tell people when they get into these horrific arguments. Look at the box. Stop fighting with your spouse. Find the word ham. It's not there.

ROSE: I put that to Rich Belfer at the White Rose Diner in North Jersey. He didn't believe me. So we walked back to his cooler to check.

BELFER: All right. So the box actually says Taylor Provisions. Then you have Goodie brand pork roll.

ROSE: That's what I'm saying. It doesn't say ham.

BELFER: Maybe not - no ham.

ROSE: All right. So I got to ask you now.

BELFER: Now you have to ask me, right? Am I going to...

ROSE: Yeah. Is this going to...

BELFER: ...If it's going to change my mind.

ROSE: Is this going to change your mind?

BELFER: No. After 31 years of calling it Taylor Ham - no. Sorry, it's still Taylor Ham.

ROSE: If he changed his menu to say pork roll, Belfer says his customers would think he was crazy. Joel Rose, NPR News, Linden, N.J.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Have you had pork roll, Ailsa?

CHANG: I've never - I've never had it.

GREENE: It's - my brother-in-law introduced it to me. It's amazing.

CHANG: Oh, OK, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.