The Case for Taylor Ham, New Jersey’s Beloved Mystery Meat
The perfect breakfast sandwich looks pretty similar throughout our great land. Some combination of eggs, cheese, bread, and bacon is required. Bacon has been passed down to us directly from heaven to reward us for being Americans. But I’m not here to praise bacon. Bacon needs no praise. Many religions forbid bacon—that is how good it is and how little new praise it needs. I have come to praise—wait for it—New Jersey.
Ben and I were younger men when we decided to move to New Jersey. Ben in his late 60s, I just nibbling into my 40s. We had come from Williamsburg, Brooklyn, land of artisanal sausage and fancy brunches, looking for a simpler way of life. We had heard tales of a magical PATH train that ushered people into New York with stops in places like Grove St. and Exchange Place. They sounded like parts of Narnia to me, a Brooklyn-wearied soul. My ten-plus years in Brooklyn had been a never-ending journey of being priced out of neighborhoods. As a gentrifier, I had never anticipated the green wave. All the empty storefronts on my block became wine bars overnight, and I was quietly shown the door. We decided, being broke, we would look for lodging where even the brave dared not follow. I said, “Staten Island!” Ben said, “Jersey City!”
No one names their son or daughter Jersey City. Unlike the word Brooklyn it does not adorn the signs of Parisian skateshops as a conch call to the young and cool. Jersey City was named Jersey City because people here were working too hard to even come up with a cool name for it. It was called Bergen back when Peter Stuyvesant roamed the fair shores of the Hackensack, peg-legging up and down its greenish sloping fields. Near our house in the currently gentrifying Journal Square area, Lafayette once ate breakfast on Stuyvesant land beneath an apple tree with George Washington himself. They chatted wildly, arms waving about. They spoke of revolution and the Revolutionary War. They spoke of the desires of all people to live free. And they ate Taylor Ham sandwiches.
There is no proof that Taylor Ham sandwiches were eaten at this historical encounter. But there is no proof they weren’t. Taylor Ham sandwiches are the preferred breakfast sandwich of all self-respecting New Jerseyans—and of interlopers like me who are trying hard to fit in. Most New Jerseyans are not filled with self-respect. I take it you have heard of Chris Christie. We’ve elected him governor twice. We’re a rage-fueled people. We rage through traffic. We rage as we pay our taxes. And what fuels this rage? A strange, round mystery meat.
If an invisible line separates New York and New Jersey, a real-estate line that only the most foolish and fearless ever brave cross, then let’s imagine a line separates the top of New Jersey from the bottom. Cut it down the middle and you’ll have a rough estimate of the demarcation line between “Taylor Ham” and “Pork Roll.” In the Northern parts of New Jersey we proudly celebrate the expansive vision of our dear John Taylor, popularizer of the brand that has captured the popular imagination of New Jersey breakfasts for generations. Below, in the darker reaches of the bowels of South Jersey and further into Philadelphia, Delaware, Maryland, and other netherlands, they call this majestic creature a “Pork Roll,” a tip of the cap to the fact that it does not technically fit the legal definition of pork as laid down in the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. When the government starts passing laws against your breakfast choices, you know you must be on the right path. Legislation is pending before the New Jersey Legislature to decide the “Taylor Ham” / “Pork Roll” divide that has split this great land. Governor Christie, on his radio program, decreed that the sandwich was officially “Taylor Ham, egg, and cheese” but then added “on a hard roll,” which opened bread-related controversy.
Here are some lyrics from the Ween song “Pork Roll Egg and Cheese”:
“Wrong in a good way” is the best explanation of a Taylor Ham sandwich. (If you can believe that there is a rivalry in New Jersey as to which part of New Jersey is the best part of New Jersey I have decided to ally myself with the North, naturally. North Jersey rules!) A soft bologna-hued disc with white spots vigorously sprinkled throughout, a slice of Taylor Ham may look unremarkable upon first inspection. Is this a slice of bologna? No, if it were bologna it would say “bologna” on the box. And it does come in a box, further deepening its allure. Just as we are told not to ask what is in a delicious sausage, we should not wonder what is the difference between this pale, speckled meat and other meats. Suffice to say, the people who know meats best know there is a difference. Let us trust their judgement and think not of it. It is a pale, speckled wheel of drab nothingness. That is, until it is fried.
Taylor Ham sandwich recipes call for one to cut the circle of meat in four places at compass headings. Are we calling upon the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost to forgive our bodies of the damage we are about to do? Possibly, but that’s just the Catholic altar boy in me talking. He must be muted by delicious breakfast meats with great regularity. I assume there is a reason. Along the lines of the reasons we don’t feed mogwai after midnight. No matter how small or how random the rules are, they have been crafted by people who have made mistakes and tried to correct them. We tip our caps to all their efforts.
As the Taylor Ham cooks, its center begins to rise up from the pan dramatically. This is where the magic begins. There must be some magic to it. It is the kind of sandwich that one might say “will put hair on your chest.” I want hair on my chest. Although I have lived many places in search of belonging, I find that I want to belong here in New Jersey most of all. Because others dismiss New Jersey as an armpit of a state, I believe that these hills must be filled with gold. Secret gold only the most careful of poet’s eyes can see. There’s also chromium. Lots of chromium, just covered over with asphalt. That you can certainly count on.
So after cutting this meat disc with scissors (I’m not exactly the Cake Boss) and watching it bubble at its core, I flip it over to see that it has been transformed beneath. And by transformed I mean browned pleasantly. The slice is a darker shade now, and it curls upward like a plunger top. The Taylor Ham slice does not require much cooking, but I trust cooking is a must. Bologna may be eaten cold; it is by nature a cold cut. Taylor ham, with its red box and intricate plastic wrapping inside, yearns to be browned. Once brown it raises its sides and shouts “hooray!” at the fan above your stove.
Taylor Ham goes best with the yellowest of cheeses and the eggiest of eggs. I have tried a number of cheeses. Ben likes a horseradish cheddar that simply is not melty enough for a Taylor Ham sandwich as I understand them. Cabot Cheddar is tastier, but not sufficiently gooey. One does not put Cheez-Its in New England clam chowder. They make tasteless oyster crackers for that. For Taylor Ham sandwiches, one should find a cheese that lacks in taste but makes up for it in gooeyness and yellowhood. Just as the pork roll is not sufficiently ham to be ham, one must hunt out a cheese food that is not sufficiently cheese to be cheese.
Taylor Ham sandwiches have filled a hole inside me I didn’t even know was there. The quickest way to belong to a place is to eat there. Home is where you don’t shit where you eat, if I’m remembering that correctly. If I can become a New Jerseyan, a true New Jerseyan, simply by eating and being angry all the time, I believe I am on the right track. If Schlitz is the beer that made Milwaukee famous, the Taylor Ham sandwich is the thing New Jerseyans own. Like Snooki or toxic waste, it is ours and we ought to love it.
Even if I have enjoyed Taylor Ham sandwiches far and wide, my favorite is still the first one I ever had, from a food truck called Bill’s Lunch. I don’t think his real name is Bill, but his Taylor Ham sandwiches are really tasty and much neater-looking than the ones I make myself. Bill’s are the most perfect combination of toasted, gooey, and yellow, with cheese-like substance dripping down its side and a cut down the middle as if you were looking at the slice in a cadaver, up and down, open wide to see all the strange wonders inside. I recently asked him how many he sells. “A few a week,” he said with a shrug, adding, “It’s a New Jersey thing.” Yes, yes. Yes, I desperately hope it is.