Odds are if you live outside New Jersey, with the exception of perhaps New York City and Philadelphia, you've never heard of Taylor Ham. That's okay, few have.
But cross over the border into New Jersey and you'll quickly learn it's a breakfast staple across the Garden State.
Also known as "Pork Roll", this breakfast meat is sold in every supermarket and grocery store, and found on the menu of nearly every diner, breakfast joint, food truck and deli in the NY/NJ Metropolitan area. In fact, you'll find it on most diner menus right there below your style of eggs and tucked between your choice of meat - bacon, sausage or Taylor Ham.
The popularity of this regional favorite has also spawned a breakfast sandwich for those on the go, dubbed the Jersey Breakfast.
Affectionately referred to by residents as the Triple Bypass, the sandwich in its most classic presentation is a few slices of Taylor Ham fried crisp, with a couple of fried eggs (or scrambled), American cheese, salt, pepper and ketchup on a poppy-seed hard roll or bagel. In Philly, the regional "long roll" seems to be a popular replacement as choice of bread.
In short, from the uppermost reaches of Bergen County through the Jersey Shore and on to Cape May; and from the Delaware River to the mighty Hudson there is nary a New Jersey native that hasn't grown up with the familiar and comforting salty flavor of Taylor Ham as part of their breakfast offerings.
So what exactly is this Taylor Ham?
Well, before we get to that, let's take a trip back to the mid-1800's for a moment.
During the mid-19th century, John Taylor (1836-1909) was active as a member of Trenton's City Council, and afterward, served as a State Senator from 1880 to 1883. Born in Hamilton Square, NJ in 1836, Taylor declined a Senatorial second term, and instead, decided to follow his entrepreneurial spirit in the provisional business.
Taylor's familiarity with the food and provisional industry dates back to 1853 when he began working as a clerk in a grocery store at the tender age of seventeen.
He took his responsibilities seriously and had a knack for the food business. So much in fact, that a mere three years later, the 20-year old, Taylor, developed a the recipe for a minced ham meat product that would go on to become a breakfast legend across his home state. It was also a recipe the young entrepreneur would keep secret for many years to come.
Beginning in 1860, he toiled for the better part of a decade in the wholesale grocery business, and it wasn't long thereafter that Taylor began working in the pork and cattle packaging industry.
As his political career waned in 1883, he began to focus more on his business dealings in the meat packaging industry. In 1888, the enterprise was officially organized into the Taylor Provision Company, and he recognized the time to release his guarded secret recipe was at hand.
The recipe that John Taylor had kept secret for so long was now the cornerstone product of his thriving new enterprise. He called his product, "Taylor's Prepared Ham", and for nearly the next two decades, Taylor's Prepared Ham grew in popularity and was becoming a regional favorite.
And then the United States government intervened.
With the passing of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, Taylor was forced to change the name of his popular product because it did not meet the new legal definition of "ham".
So now, the next logical question is, "What legally defines ham?"
Well, the USDA regulates ham primarily on the basis of its cure and water content.
Under US law, "ham" is a cured hind leg of pork that is at least 20.5% protein (not counting fat portions), and contains no added water. It is made from a single piece of meat from the hind leg of a hog, or as in the case of a picnic ham, a single piece of meat from a pork shoulder.
But there are exceptions.
So according to the newly enacted Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, which was principally designed to ensure a "truth in labeling", for whatever reason, Taylor's product obviously did not meet the criteria set forth by the United States government to be deemed a "ham" product.
However, the former senator was not one to be easily deterred, and changed the product's name to "pork roll" and it was soon marketed as Trenton Pork Roll.
From that point onward, the product simply (and officially) became known as "Taylor's Pork Roll", and for the next century, became a household name in New Jersey, essentially eradicating all but a handful of competitors.
So What Exactly Is This Taylor Ham... er, Pork Roll?
Well, for the most part, it's still a secret. According to Taylor Provisions, it is a "type of sausage-like pork made from coarsely ground pork shoulder". I would add it definitely has bits of fat and seasonings in its recipe as well, and most likely, other goodies best not divulged.
All I know is it is delicious, and in much the same manner as scrapple, it is probably best not to ask but just be thankful we have it to enjoy.
That is the short answer. A more in-depth description would be more along the lines of this:
It is a ground pork product similar in appearance to salami, but with a taste that is more akin to a cross between SPAM and Canadian bacon.
Still manufactured by Taylor Provisions, the pork roll is packed in a cylindrical cotton burlap sack that allows slicing without removal from the bag. It is sold in 6, 3 and 1.5 pound rolls, as well as boxes containing 8 slices.
Before cooking, a single slice is made from the outer edge inward toward the center, perhaps 3/4" long. This cut prevents the slice from curling up which usually causes uneven cooking. Once these cuts are made, it's easy to see why many allude to them as Pac-Man bacon.
I hope that explanation suffices as it's all I can drum up on short notice.
So that's it for the story of how the Jersey Breakfast meat came to be; the long and storied history of the John Taylor and his Pork Roll.
Below, I tell how a Jersey Breakfast is made. Enjoy a bit of the Garden State; fry some up... and have fun with those delicious pac-men!
Taylor Ham, Egg and Cheese on a hard roll
1. For a sandwich of this magnitude, only one pan will do; my 100 year old cast-iron Griswold griddle.
3. Once they start to crisp up, I turn them and watch them sizzle.
5. Salt, pepper and ketchup on a Jersey poppy-seeded hard roll, and your in business - fuggedaboudit!
2. Once the griddle's up to heat and I sliced the Taylor Ham, in they go as I watch them turn into Pac-men.
4. Now if there's any discrepancy at all, it's the eggs - some keep the yolk in tact, some smash the yolk, some scramble. Here, I scrambled, for no better reason than I felt like it. The key is to layer the cheese and pork roll on top while the egg cooks.