Gotta love mothers-in-law (and parents in general) for sending you down the rabbit hole with email forwards.
But leave it to my mother-in-law to know how her food-obsessed daugher-in-law’s mind works and, in lieu of adorable cats and puppies napping together, pass along a round-up of America’s most bizarre state foods.
While it was Utah’s inexplicable official choice of Jello (yes, I’m well aware there’s always room for Jello) that caught her eye, my astute mother-in-law had a very important question: “Does NJ have a state food? Why would any state have one?”
Though my adopted home base of New Jersey boasts a state fruit (the blueberry) and a state fish (the brook trout), it’s perplexing that a place with such a rich culinary palate should be bereft of a state junk food, at least.
And if it had one, New Jersey’s state food should be Taylor ham. Or pork roll, which is the same thing by a different name.
Thank Trenton’s own John Taylor, who invented this salty tubed meat in the late 1800s, for the confusion.
He didn’t know that 20th-century packaging designers would slap a “Taylor pork roll” label on his product and unwittingly start yet another regional North/South Jersey feud.
All he probably knew was that he was developing a seasoned, cured, indestructible ham-ish product that happened to go pretty well with a post-Revolutionary War hangover.
“Growing up in New Jersey, ordering the ubiquitous ‘Taylor ham, egg & cheese’ sandwich at a diner in the wee hours of the morning is a teenage rite of passage,” declares Nicole Canfora Lupo, born-and-bred New Jerseyan and author of Images of America: Belleville.“There’s a definite taste difference between Taylor ham and other brands of pork roll. If it’s not Taylor ham, I won’t eat it.”
It’s also a combination so beloved in New Jersey that the Jersey Shore BlueClaws, a South Jersey minor league baseball team formerly known as the Lakewood BlueClaws, have immortalized it in a between-innings mascot race.
Though often compared to Canadian bacon, Taylor ham or pork roll can be sliced thin, thinner than the piece of questionable-origin meat on your Egg McMuffin.
It then becomes closer in spirit to that great western Pennsylvanian deli meat, chipped ham.
Or, when cut thick, would probably win the heart of a Hawaiian jonesing for a piece of Spam. See? No matter where you’re from, there’s a ham-based foodstuff that you’ll think back fondly on someday.
For a non-native like myself, the best part of Taylor ham/pork roll consumption comes from the buildup of fat and flavors that can only accumulate on a diner or deli griddle and adhere to the meat.
Three or four small slits cutting in like points of a compass around the edge of each disc are key in preventing the ham from curling and puffing when it hits the searing flattop, maximizing its potential for a crispy charred exterior.
Devoured on a Kaiser roll with egg and cheese, it’s a lead-gut breakfast that’s oddly satisfying, a meal that John Taylor would likely find to be one for the ages.
“It’s one of those foods that I always imagined existed across America, not just in our area,” Canfora Lupo muses, but to me, it’s always a little more exciting to come across these regional foods in their natural habitat.
If it weren’t so emblematic of a particular era or area, would it still be as special?
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