Thomas Hobbes believed that conflict was ingrained in human nature. No matter how trivial the pursuit, human beings are constantly fighting for power. It’s a grim perspective, but when you look at the history books it’s clear that Hobbes had a point—conflict is as human as falling in love. In 1325, for example, two Italian city-states, Bologna and Modena, went to war over a wooden bucket (yes, you read that correctly). Keeping “The War of the Bucket” in mind, it’s no surprise that New Jersey is deeply divided over the name of a breakfast food, “Taylor ham or pork roll”?
North of I-78 you will only hear Taylor ham, to the south it’s solely referred to as pork roll, and Central Jersey is a bit of a toss-up. But wherever you are, it’s important to know the colloquial terminology unless you’re looking for a fight. To an outsider, it sounds completely absurd that someone would verbally assault the deli clerk over the name of a breakfast meat. And they likely wouldn’t believe me when I tell them I’ve been refused service for calling it Taylor ham. But, the intensity of cultural warfare is alive and well in New Jersey’s battle over breakfast.
What is Taylor Ham/Pork Roll?
Before we delve deeper into this debate, let’s discuss the food itself. If you haven’t eaten Taylor ham, you’re missing out (and you likely aren’t from New Jersey). It’s a pork-based breakfast meat that looks similar to the circular slices of Canadian bacon, yet has the luscious, greasy flavor of American bacon. Plus, it’s cheap and extremely easy to cook—just fire up the stove and toss a few slices on a skillet.
When it comes to methodology, in New Jersey we aren’t animals, so we typically eat it in the form of a sandwich. Taylor ham, egg, and cheese topped off with salt, pepper, and ketchup. I personally prefer my breakfast sandwiches on a bagel, but a hard roll or English muffin are also acceptable options.
The Origin Story
To fully understand the complexity of this dispute, a bit of historical context is necessary. In 1856, a local businessman and politician from Hamilton Square, NJ., invented Taylor ham. It was a roll of pork-based meat that had been smoked and seasoned with preservatives and spices. The man behind this creation was John Taylor and his new product, “Taylor’s Prepared Ham,” offered affordable meals for working-class New Jerseyans. Of course, the colloquial term was eventually whittled down to Taylor ham.
Decades later, the FDA passed the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. This was in response to Upton Sinclair’s scathing account of the meatpacking industry in his novel, “The Jungle.” According to the new legislation, “Taylor’s Prepared Ham” no longer met the legal definition of “ham” and was forced to rebrand. Subsequently, John Taylor renamed his product “Taylor’s Pork Roll,” and also marketed it as “Trenton Pork Roll.” Still, many residents stuck to their guns and continued to call it Taylor ham.
Around this same time, competitors began producing their own pork roll products. Including Case Pork Roll, which began in Belle Mead, NJ., and remains one of Taylor Provisions’ biggest competitors today. That said, if you ask any New Jersey native, they’ll tell you that any brand other than Taylor’s is a knock-off.
The Debate: Taylor Ham or Pork Roll?
South Jersey natives are the conformists in this story, and therefore staunch supporters of pork roll, in accordance with the Food and Drug Act of 1906. They’ve also maintained that pork roll is a generic term, while Taylor ham is a specific brand. You wouldn’t refer to all hotdogs as Nathan’s, so why would you call all pork roll products Taylor ham? Interestingly enough, Taylor Provisions is headquartered in Trenton, which is considered South Jersey. Yet, South Jersey residents show no fealty to their local supplier.
North Jersey residents, on the other hand, are the traditionalists in this debate. Hence, their allegiance to Taylor ham, the creator and original supplier of pork roll products. Generations before them called it Taylor ham, so it only makes sense to carry on that tradition. On top of that, it’s a cardinal sin to purchase any brand other Taylor ham. So, if you’re only eating the Taylor brand, why not just call it Taylor ham?
Ultimately, I’m from North Jersey, so it’s important I pay homage to the father of Taylor ham, John Taylor. Generations of proud New Jerseyans called it Taylor ham before me, and I intend to carry on that tradition. It also doesn’t hurt that I enjoy ragging on my friends and colleagues from South Jersey. But, in all honesty, I have no interest in seeking a resolution.
In the 14th Century, Bologna and Modena went to war over a wooden bucket. From each of their perspectives, the bucket held cultural significance—it symbolized power, respect, and relevance. Which, I guess is what we all want in the end—a reason to be remembered or revered. And as Hobbes would point out, that’s why we bicker over something as trivial as Taylor ham or pork roll. So, I understand South Jersey’s reluctance to let go of their name. But, more importantly, this debate is what makes New Jersey unique. Nowhere else in history will you read about such heated opposition to the name of a slice of meat. “Taylor ham or pork roll?” is our wooden bucket.