By every measure, Maggie Kowalski is a successful young woman. A graduate of Northeastern University in Boston, she works in New York City as an account manager at a financial technology company. Outside the office, she's an avid reader and a dedicated powerlifter, hoisting weights that far exceed her own body mass onto her shoulders several days a week.
But there's one particular feather stuck in Kowalski's cap that flutters a little higher than the rest. This past spring, she competed in, and won, the "Miss Pork Roll" portion of Trenton, New Jersey's inaugural Pork Roll Festival, an all-out celebration of an odd encased meat that's deified in the Garden State but little-known outside its weird, wrung-out-washcloth borders.
A native of Bayonne, Kowalski earned herself a proper sash, a rhinestone-studded tiara, and her own float in Trenton's 2015 St. Patrick's Parade along with the victory, which saw her navigate a Q&A session ("as queen, how would you bring pork roll awareness to your community?") and show off a hidden talent (she bested a bystander in an impromptu push-up contest).
Though she's required to relinquish her crown with the naming of next year's winner, Kowalski will forever feel like she's wearing it. "I'll always have that," she says. "I'm a regional breakfast meat-themed pageant queen."
Maybe we should back up a little bit. You're likely curious why there was an enormous gathering—4,000-plus attendees, drawing ticketholders from as far away as Alaska—dedicated to rounds of processed pig most eye-tests would dismiss as Canadian bacon. And, if you didn't grow up Jersey Fresh or in certain parts of Pennsylvania, you might be wondering what the hell pork roll actually is.
Fair queries both. For answers, the first and only place to start is Jersey—though few there can even agree on what the stuff should actually be called.
Like all the best defiantly provincial American foodstuffs, the history of pork roll is heavy on lore, and since it's closely associated with one of the 13 original colonies, that lore stretches back centuries. The city of Trenton, New Jersey's capital and the spiritual epicenter of modern pork roll-dom, is frequently earmarked as the first place a pork roll prototype appeared, stowed in Continental soldiers' satchels while they dusted up Hessians at the Battle of Trenton in 1776. Zip ahead to the latter half of the 19th century, when Taylor Provisions and Case Pork Roll Company, both Trenton-based food companies, began developing competing techniques en route to becoming the Yankees and Red Sox of pork roll manufacturing.
"It pisses me off when people just refer to it as pork. I'm not entirely sure what it is, but it's not that," says Kowalski. Manufacturers like Taylor and Case are famously tight-lipped about specifics, given the competitive retail market, but the basics are this: Pork roll is a cured, smoked and pre-cooked porcine product with a smooth, even consistency, not dissimilar to bologna, mortadella, or even Spam. It comes packaged in either shrink-wrapped rounds or in hefty canvas-cloaked tubes designed for deli meat cutters. To slice the roll, take the canvas and "peel it back like the Six Million Dollar Man's skin over his bionic arm," advises Scott Miller, founder and organizer of Trenton's Pork Roll Festival.
Like pepperoni, pork roll curls into a little cup when cooked, so short order cooks prep the griddle-destined slices by giving them four teeny knife nicks to prevent the rounds from puffing up on the flat-top and missing their much-needed sear. Doing so results in discs of meat that resemble a four-pronged firefighters' cross, or even Mr. or Ms. Pac-Man if the cuts are dramatic enough.
Salty, crispy, and greasy in the most delightful hangover-bashing sense, pork roll is most commonly eaten as a breakfast sandwich, with egg and cheese on a bagel or kaiser roll—a setup so singular in this pocket of the world that it inspired a Ween song. It's also commonly tagged in for bacon or sausage on diner breakfast platters.
Drive the length of Jersey Turnpike and jump off any exit and there's a very high probability you'll be close to a diner, street cart, or corner bodega selling the stuff. It's also creeped its way south into parts of processed-meat-loving Philadelphia—Amish meatmakers in Lancaster County make their own version, which is not cured—but the same can't be said for New York City.
As far as reach goes, that's about it. And Jerseyites love that.
"It's something that only people from Jersey know about, and they like being part of that small community. It gives people a sense of belonging, I think," says Craig D'Alessio, moderator of Facebook's pork roll appreciation page, which has upward of 46,000 (!) fans. A self-proclaimed evangelist for the product, D'Alessio, who now lives in Boston, spent his early childhood in Jersey, but later moved to equally pork roll-free Maryland for high school. Then and now, pork roll is close to impossible to locate in stores outside its home region. (Coincidentally, he and Kowalski work for the same company; it was D'Alessio who initially put her on on to the festival and pageant.)
"It's one of those things that people have in common here," says Miller. "I can go for awhile without touching the stuff, but then I tend to binge on it like Netflix."
"We make it, we sell it, we eat it," concurs Rich Belfer, owner of the White Rose Diner in Linden. The big sellers at this small breakfast-and-lunch operation include "The Complete," which adds home fries to a pork roll, egg and cheese; and the "Jersey Burger," a short order-style patty topped with the stuff. "It's a flavor, it's a taste, it's a habit. It's easy to cook. It's easy to get. Come in, get a Taylor ham, egg and cheese, and be out in a few minutes."
Notice that he referred to it as Taylor ham—a brand name that, like Xerox or Kleenex, has become synonymous with the product itself, but not without controversy. North of Trenton, pork roll fanatics are particular about referring to pork roll in this manner, a namesake shoutout to John Taylor, the Jersey state senator and grocery mogul whose recipe laid the groundwork in 1856. South of Trenton, however, it's called pork roll all the way.
Please don't get them started.
This nomenclatural lacuna, "pitting North against South, brother against brother," according to NJ.com—is characterized by both factions' staunch refusal to concede to the other, producing "the state's most vexing question." (What about The Jersey Devil, though?!) It's by far the most common flame-war topic on D'Alessio's Facebook page. "It's a major debate," he says.
One obvious reason anti-Taylor ham people stick to their griddled-crisped guns so staunchly is vocal loyalty to other brands. Case, which originates with a recipe developed by Bell Mead butcher George Washington Case in 1870, has a dedicated fanbase, motivated at least slightly by its underdog status—a comparatively smaller company, it's the spry and spunky David to Taylor's hulking industrial Goliath. "It's my opinion, and just about everybody else's opinion in Trenton, that Case makes a superior product," says Miller. "It has a fuller, richer flavor, with more smokiness to it."
Belfer, in the Taylor ham camp by dint of sheer geography, shrugs off such taste-test claims. "I don't want to put people down, but they don't know the difference," he says. "I could put three different sandwiches on the counter and you wouldn't be able to tell."
But squabbles over brand loyalty are secondary to the unifying power of pork roll as a statewide point of pride, inspiring misty pork roll-colored memories of the way they breakfasted. Can it be that it was all so simple then? Apparently: Peruse the "reviews" section of jerseyporkroll.com, an online retailer that ships NJ meat products nationwide, for a taste. Dewy-eyed plaudits from far-off fans in California, Washington, Idaho, and Wyoming pour in, all steeped in serious Garden State nostalgia.
"It's something that reminds people of their childhood and their families, especially for New Jersey expatriates," says Miller, "The smell, the scenes, the memories surrounding pork roll, all seem to tie in rather nicely." He witnessed this dedication first-hand while organizing his festival, which saw him overrun with ticket requests. "The passion way exceeded anything I was ever ready for," he says.
Embodying that passion is Kowalski, reigning pork roll royalty till she bequeaths her title next May. "Bacon, sausage—you could have that anywhere. It's forgettable," she says. "Pork roll is something that you're only getting in New Jersey."