You Can’t Take the Taylor Ham Out of Jersey

by Christine Feeley

“Taylor ham egg and cheese on an everything bagel, saltpepperketchup!” The order comes out all in one breath, a practiced mantra seasoned with years of experience. The woman at the counter remains unphas/ed as she jots down “THEC” on a yellow notepad and whisks it away to hand off to those preparing the food.

Whenever I discuss this delicacy in other parts of the country, I tend to get a lot of blank looks. The fact that no one has heard of a meal that is such a staple in my life baffles me, and naturally will launch me into an explanation riddled with the insistence that they must travel to New Jersey to try it themselves, no matter how far away they live. Most people have tried a bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich, but I can say with certainty that while it may be similar in nature, it is an entirely different experience compared to this classic NJ breakfast sandwich.

The origin of the Taylor ham allegedly dates back to 1856, when state Senator and businessman John Taylor developed it in the state capitol of Trenton. He created the cured meat using a mix of spices, salt, preservatives, and a sugar cure, and then smoked it before it was packaged. It hit the market under the name “Taylor’s Prepared Ham,” but was later renamed to “Original Taylor Pork Roll,” due to the meat not meeting the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906’s definition of “ham.” This might sound mildly alarming, but it just meant that John Taylor’s product was not technically a ham but instead classified as a “lunch meat.” It also wound up creating a controversy that will undoubtedly plague the state of New Jersey until the end of time.

Taylor ham versus pork roll is a battle greater than Marvel versus DC, as in, one is clearly the correct answer. It is a testament to the long-standing Northern Jersey versus Southern Jersey hostility that arises  whenever I meet someone from a different part of the state. It’s one of the first questions that fellow New Jerseyans will ask me. They don’t ask what town I live in, rather: “Oh, you’re from Jersey? Taylor ham or pork roll?” The resounding answer is always, as it should be, Taylor ham, and this gives them a better answer of what region of the state I’m from over any other question they could have asked. This sort of cultural warfare is exactly the sort of thing that would spark in New Jersey, a state that’s known for our unrelenting pride despite the constant waves of slander that crash over us time and time again.

The first time I was offered a Taylor ham egg and cheese bagel I didn’t know what to expect. I had admittedly little experience with assorted breakfast meats aside from bacon, so the concept of Taylor ham was somewhat alarming to a non-frequent meat-eater. But it has the saltiness of bacon, with the size, shape, and texture of a slice of Canadian bacon, and is more appealing in a sandwich than it has any right to be. These bagels have become a staple of my hometown hotspots to share with those visiting, something I desperately crave when I’m away from home, and a sandwich that I don’t know how some people have gone their whole lives without tasting. There are hardly words to describe it: it’s sunshine on a Saturday morning, it’s the perfect afternoon pick-me-up, it’s the only cure to a violent hangover. And nowhere, in my experience, does it better than Bagelwich.

Bagelwich is a tiny deli on the main street in the center of my town Verona, constantly swarmed with adults and children alike. Its most crowded hours: on a half-day where nearly every student in town swarms the tiny standing-room only room, spilling out the door and onto the street. A tall mirror stands in the left corner. When I look in it, I see behind me a young boy clutching a 10-dollar bill in hand, a group of high school friends with backpacks pressed up against the glass case filled with meats and cream cheese, and a man with a briefcase, perhaps on an afternoon lunch break.

Let it be known: Bagelwich, (and other bagel shops in New Jersey) has an incredibly vast and varied menu. In fact, when looking at their website, I was shocked to learn that they have omelettes, breakfast burritos, and even french toast. But I have rarely, if ever, ordered anything else from there. And upon overhearing the orders as I wait in line, most of them place the same order, with some variation. Some refuse the salt-pepper-ketchup, others switch up the type of bagel, but the foundation is the same — a breakfast sandwich that is a product of generations of New Jersey history and pride.

Essentials: Bagelwich Bagel Bakery and Deli, 652 Bloomfield Ave, Verona, NJ 07044. Taylor ham egg and cheese bagel $5.75

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