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If you try to order a pork roll in most of the country, you'll probably get a blank stare, but not in New Jersey. Pork roll is a staple at diners, restaurants and food trucks from Cape May to the Meadowlands. And this unsung meat product is now the star of not one but two competing festivals tomorrow, as NPR's Joel Rose explains.
JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: In North Jersey, it's called Taylor Ham. In the rest of the city, it goes by pork roll, but New Jersey residents agree on one thing - it's delicious
MAGGIE KOWALSKI: It's like Spam meets bacon, but with a whole other set of spices that we don't know anything about., and we just have to, you know, except that and we do (laughter).
ROSE: That, ladies and gentlemen, is Maggie Kowalski, the reigning Miss Pork Roll Queen. She won that title last year at the inaugural Trenton Pork Roll Festival. We met at a diner in her hometown of Bayonne and ordered what they call a Taylor Ham, egg and cheese sandwich.
That's delicious. That's like bacon and ham had a love child.
KOWALSKI: Exactly. How do you not like this?
ROSE: This must be an amazing hangover food, too.
KOWALSKI: Oh, yeah. This is the go-to.
ROSE: To the untrained eye, pork roll looks like Canadian bacon, but New Jerseyans know better. Kowalski says the Garden State is often overshadowed by the culinary traditions of neighboring New York and Philadelphia.
KOWALSKI: New Jersey kind of gets lost in the shuffle between those two cities. This is something that's - it's, like, just for us. It's for regular people who live in New Jersey. This is, like, for us, by us almost.
ROSE: Most pork roll is still made in Trenton, N.J. The city's two oldest companies, Taylor and Case's, trace their roots to the 1800s. Their recipes are a closely guarded secret, but Trenton never did much to celebrate this native delicacy, until last year.
T.C. NELSON: I'll just kind of pan fry this there.
ROSE: That's T.C. Nelson, owner of a bar and restaurant called Trenton Social, which hosted the city's first-ever pork roll festival a year ago. An estimated 4,000 people turned up - far more than the organizers had expected.
NELSON: It was like waking a sleeping giant of pork roll lovers. It was overwhelming.
ROSE: In a way, last year's pork roll festival was a victim of its own success. Lines were long. The vendors almost ran out of pork roll, and before long there was trouble between Nelson and the festival's producer, Scott Miller.
SCOTT MILLER: His venue was just too small for what we wanted to do based on even last year's turnout.
ROSE: Miller owns a production company in Trenton. He insists the pork roll festival was his idea, and Miller wanted to move the festival to a bigger park in downtown Trenton, where it would have room to grow.
MILLER: That was always the intent of the pork roll festival was for it to be something that would have a good, positive impact on the community that would benefit more people than just myself.
ROSE: But T.C. Nelson did not want the festival to move. He was making plans to host it again at his restaurant.
NELSON: I heard whispers and rumbles that he was planning on taking something that we built together. I wasn't cool with that. I think it was just greed.
ROSE: Nelson and Miller say they were friendly before the pork roll festival, but their beef has been building. Nelson is now holding a competing festival on the same day. Meanwhile, Miller's lawyer fired off a cease-and-desist letter and Miller rejects the charge that he's the greedy one.
MILLER: I just kind of ignore stuff. Our pork roll festival has always been about peace, love and pork roll, and we hope that we can try to reach that goal year after year.
ROSE: So there will be two festivals tomorrow dedicated to New Jersey's favorite breakfast meat, which is kind of fitting since the state can't even decide whether to call it pork roll or Taylor Ham. Joel Rose, NPR News.
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