One hundred-ish years ago, my great grandmother Ethel was a newlywed, cooking breakfast for her husband John, somewhere in New Jersey. Then her mother Bertha stopped by. She oohed and aahed at the wonderful aroma coming from the kitchen, wondered what Ethel was making, and Ethel had no other option. She had to tell the truth:
“Mom,” she said. “I’m making Taylor ham.”
This didn’t go over great. Betha told them to enjoy their Taylor ham, went outside, and said she would come back in when the Taylor ham was gone. What time of year this was has been lost in translation but, in my head, Betha was standing outside in the rain or snow or sleet, arms crossed, foot stomping.
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Until that point, my whole family was kosher, which means a lot of things, but no-pork is a big one. Despite Bertha’s discontent, Ethel and her husband did enjoy their Taylor ham, and our family has enjoyed it ever since. Sorry, Bertha.
But you’re probably still wondering, what’s Taylor ham?
A processed, smoked pork product. The greatest breakfast meat of all time. Meat because, no, it’s not technically ham. In fact, the product was first named Taylor’s Prepared Ham, then the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 was like, Nope! It’s not actually ham!
The name stuck, though. Fast-forward 112 years and northern New Jerseyans like myself still say Taylor ham. The rest of the state calls it pork roll, which sounds worse, but has some historical reason: While today’s it is easiest to find Taylor ham pre-sliced, like this, it’s purest form is an oversized log, like this. Cute, right?
From a distance, you might want to liken Taylor ham to a sausage on steroids. Or, if you’re looking at one of its sliced cross-sections, maybe you’ll compare it to Canadian bacon. Let’s be clear: Taylor ham is better than ham, sausage, Canadian bacon, and—dare I say—bacon itself.
In actuality, its closest cousin is Spam. I can’t speak to this myself, since I’ve only ever had one cube of Spam in my lifetime (thanks to my editor Eric Kim, who insisted upon it). As Serious Eats’ J. Kenji Lopez-Alt puts it: Taylor ham is “Spam for people who don't want to admit they like Spam." Also, Taylor ham hails from a cotton sack, not a can, and is round, not square.
Because Taylor ham is fully cooked, all you need is a stove and skillet and you’ll have the happiest breakfast in less time than it takes to brew a pot of coffee. If you’re starting from the log, slice as thinly as possible. From there, snip the edges—make one to three small cuts with a knife or pair of scissors, figure 1/2-inch—otherwise the slices will puff up in the pan and steam. And if the edges aren’t crispy, there’s no point.
The end-all way to eat Taylor ham is a “Taylor, egg, and cheese.” At home, this will be on an English muffin. At a diner, it’ll be on a Kaiser roll. Or, if you’re my grandma, you’ll go to a diner and ask for Taylor ham and a burnt English muffin—”Burnt!” you’ll shout—and make a sandwich at the table.
Now that you’ve found your new favorite breakfast meat, don’t stop at breakfast. Cut into lardons and use instead of pancetta for a faux-carbonara. Dice up small and incorporate into fried rice. Mince, crisp up, and sprinkle on an ice cream sundae. Okay, just kidding. Or am I?
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Have you ever tried Taylor ham (pork roll) before? Tell us where and when and how in the comments!
Emma is a writer and recipe developer at Food52. Before this, she worked a lot of odd jobs, all at the same time. Think: stir-frying noodles "on the fly," baking dozens of pastries at 3 a.m., reviewing restaurants, and writing articles about everything from how to use leftover mashed potatoes to the history of pies in North Carolina. Now she lives in Maplewood, New Jersey with her husband and their cat, Butter. Stay tuned every Tuesday for Emma's cooking column, Big Little Recipes, all about big flavor and little ingredient lists. And see what she's up to on Instagram and Twitter at @emmalaperruque.