A brief history of Taylor ham, aka pork roll
Some New Jerseyans call it pork roll. Others Taylor ham. You can blame Upton Sinclair for the confusion. What does a dead socialist writer have to do with New Jersey’s indigenous tubular meat product sold in a cotton bag? A whole lot.
In 1905, Sinclair published The Jungle, in serial form, in the socialist newspaper Appeal to Reason. The Jungle led to public outrage as it depicted deplorable working conditions and the unsanitary state of food safety in the meatpacking industry at the turn of the last century. President Theodore Roosevelt—although he wasn’t on board with Sinclair’s socialist views— wrote Sinclair personally and promised that there would be an investigation of the poor sanitation and hygiene inside meatpacking plants. What followed was the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 that, among other things, redefined definitions for truth in labeling.
Under the new standards, John Taylor’s popular meat product, labeled and sold as “Taylor’s Prepared Ham,” no longer met the federal definition of ham, “the cut of pork deriving from the hind legs of swines, being made of original meat, as well as the remnants of the preserving agents.” The Taylor Provisions Company swiftly relabeled and remarketed the product as “John Taylor’s Pork Roll.” Imitators soon followed. In 1910, the company sued a competitor for trademark infringement, but the courts ruled against Taylor, finding that the phrase “pork roll” could not be protected.
This locally famous meat product, largely unheard of outside New Jersey and New York, was born in Trenton over 150 years ago when the city was a booming market town with a geographically advantageous position for shipping by river and rail. John Taylor, the son of a bricklayer, and the future progenitor of pork roll, was 17 when he began to work at a local Trenton grocery market, A.R. Rainear’s. He soon became a partner, then formed his own retail grocery partnership. In 1856 he introduced “John Taylor’s Prepared Ham.” One selling point was that it was far less perishable than meat of the unprepared variety.
Propelled by the success of his pork roll, Taylor became a leading social and political figure in Trenton. He was the first president of the Inter-State Fair Association, an event that drew a crowd of 33,000 and featured cattle, livestock, culinary arts, traveling Wild West shows, the first female presidential candidate and an Annie Oakley shootout. Taylor also purchased and developed what became the Taylor Opera House. Opened on March 18, 1867, with 1,987 seats, the venue hosted political conventions and performers like Mark Twain, Ethel Barrymore, Sarah Bernhardt and, ironically, the premiere of Upton Sinclair’s own stage production of The Jungle.
Although higher-quality local pork options are now available, pork roll remains an iconic New Jersey food, with a recent cookbook and a new annual food festival devoted to it. Two companies in Trenton, Taylor Provisions Company and Case’s Pork Roll Company, continue to make it.
And while the federal government insists it’s called pork roll, it only seems appropriate to allow the progenitor of pork roll to have the final word. For that, we look to John Taylor’s gravestone at the Riverview Cemetery in Trenton. It reads, “John Taylor … created Taylor Ham.”
THE NORTH/SOUTH DIVIDE
A good way to geolocate yourself in New Jersey is to find out what the local residents call their processed meat. In North Jersey, the name “Taylor Ham” continues to persist. In Central Jersey, South Jersey and Philadelphia, it’s usually called pork roll. Where’s the dividing line? That debate could fill several volumes of this magazine.
COMING TO A LIBRARY NEAR YOU
Pork roll now has its own book. The Pork Roll Cookbook (Cider Press), published in February, outlines the history of John Taylor and his ham, along with more than 50 recipes, many supplied by New Jersey chefs. The book was written by Times of Trenton reporter Jenna Pizzi, with contributions by Susan Sprague Yeske.
“There are very few things that Trenton still makes, and pork roll is one of them,” Pizzi says of what originally interested her in the project. As for the meaty food product itself, she says she didn’t learn anything particularly shocking. “Everybody says they don’t want to know what’s in it. But it’s really not that scary.” —Jared Flesher
THREE PORK ROLL FESTIVALS IN ONE
Considering pork roll’s long and intriguing history, it only seems appropriate that the city of Trenton suddenly has three competing pork roll festivals, all held on the same day. Two years ago it had none.
A new pork roll festival held in Trenton in 2014 proved so unexpectedly popular that the pork roll itself actually ran out— reportedly, more than 4,000 people showed up. The festival promised to come back bigger and better in 2015, but a split by the event organizers proved irreconcilable. So now, on May 23, the “Pork Roll Festival 2015” will be held in Mill Hill Park, while the “Trenton Pork Roll Festival” will be held outside Trenton Social restaurant on South Broad Street. Tickets to each festival will be sold for $5.
Following announcement of the schism, Trenton resident Graham Apgar decided there was probably room for at least one more pork roll festival, and announced the Trenton Vegan Pork Roll Festival, which will be held on May 23 from noon to 5pm at the Gandhi Garden on East Hanover Street. Guests to this free gathering are asked to bring their own vegetarian dishes—one challenge is to create a palatable pork roll substitute—and musical instruments if they play them. —Jared Flesher