At The End of The Day, l’m Just a Boy From Jersey

By on Wednesday, January 11th, 2023 at 11:02 pm

taylor ham egg and cheese sandwith with Disco fries in new jersey covered in brown gravy and mozzarella cheese from a diner

If there is one thing I miss about living in New Jersey, it’s Taylor Ham. If there are two things, I would also add disco fries. If you aren’t from New Jersey, you might not know what either of these things are. If you’re from south Jersey, you might not want to argue that it’s actually pork roll and not Taylor ham.

Original Taylor Pork Roll is a processed pork product first manufactured in Trenton, New Jersey in 1856. This was back when Trenton made things and the world took things, and why there is a bridge in Trenton with a big sign that says “Trenton Makes, the World Takes.”

John Taylor created the recipe selling it as “Taylor’s Prepared Ham.” But the trouble is, the pork product isn’t actually a ham. Don’t worry, food purists, pork is the first ingredient listed, to which Taylor added salt, sugar, special spices and a few other things. Unfortunately, these other things were in violation of the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act.

Don’t get me wrong, this little piece of legislation is imperfect, but back at the turn of the last century processed meat was full of impurities. Some of these impurities were chemicals while others were human body parts cut off by machines and ground up with the rest of the slurry. Upton Sinclair’s popular novel, The Jungle, exposed the horrific conditions of meat processing. The resulting outrage led the Federal government to set some standards. Somehow though, bleaching chicken is still okay.

Anyway, John Taylor’s delicious ham product wasn’t quite pure enough for the Feds. As a result, the people in south Jersey insisted on calling this product Pork Roll. Folks in North Jersey didn’t get the memo, and continue to call it Taylor ham. Outside of New Jersey, people do not have a word for this product because it’s impossible to buy.

Or at least it was. For decades, New Jersey existed in a Taylor Ham reality distortion field. The product couldn’t be found outside the state. In more recent years, outlaw shops have been exporting it to places where New Jersyans have taken up residence. Rumors are there is a deli in Lake Havasu, Arizona that will sell it. I’ve also seen it at Stop & Shop stores in New England.

As a Taylor Ham enthusiast, I’ve also kept track of where I can find the delicacy in New York City. The list is pretty short: Court Square Diner in Long Island City, Queens, and Bagelsmith in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Crif Dogs, the upscale hot dog shop, used to sell a Jersey dog wrapped in Taylor Ham, but this was actually too much processed meat even for me.

The best way to eat Taylor ham is on a taylor ham, egg, and cheese sandwich, ideally on what I would call a Kaiser roll or hard roll. The kaiser roll, if you are unfamiliar, is also used in the popular local delicacy known as a “buttered roll.”

cross section of the taylor ham egg and cheese sandwich  from a diner

So while breakfast sandwiches are a fairly popular all-day food in New York City’s bodegas, street carts, and diners, the meat options are limited to bacon, sausage, chorizo, and sometimes cold cuts. Taylor Ham is impossible to find.

A ten-minute PATH ride opens up the world of Taylor Ham. When my office was located in Hoboken, I would usually get my Taylor Ham fix from Ali’s Food Truck. But nothing compares to a T.E.C. sandwich from a diner.

I started eating Taylor Ham sandwiches in high school. Diners were where we hung out as teenagers. Back then, the state issued a full driver’s license at the age of seventeen. Apparently stuffing a car with minors driven by a not-yet-legal-adult on some of the most congested roads in America is a bad idea. Anyway, back then, there were plenty of people in school with me who were old enough to drive.

My favorite was the Pompton Queen on Route 23. It was an upscale diner with liquor license, open 24 hours a day, and big enough to accommodate thirty rowdy theater club kids. The whole cast of our drama club shows would pile into a dozen diner booths. The waitresses would roll her eyes. I would order Taylor Ham sandwiches.

cross section of the taylor ham egg and cheese sandwich but on an angle from a diner

Now that I live in Brooklyn, I don’t own a car and I don’t get to eat Taylor Ham with any regularity. Since the pandemic, even with a trip to New Jersey, I haven’t been jumping into the booth of a diner. I’ve been craving a Taylor Ham sandwich since at least 2020. At Christmas, we stayed with my in-laws overnight. The day after, on the way back to Brooklyn, we stopped at a diner.

We ate at the Beacon Diner in Fairview, New Jersey, a classic complete with a liquor license and giant refrigerated cake display right at the front door. Some other time I’ll tell you about my love of diner lemon meringue pie, but not today. We sat down in a giant corner booth, ordered a mediocre diner coffee and a Taylor, Egg and Cheese with a side of disco fries.

Disco Fries are New Jersey’s answer to poutine. They are french fries covered in brown gravy and topped with cheese before squatting the plate under a broiler for a few minutes. In North Jersey, they’re topped with either American cheese or Mozzarella.

Mozzarella cheese is ubiquitous in New Jersey where 1.25 million Italian Americans live. The cheese is considered the standard for disco fries and the consistency is similar to the cheese curds used on poutine. Poutine first showed up in Canada in the late 1950s, so it’s entirely possible this drunk food simply migrated south over the next few decades.

Disco fries in new jersey covered in brown gravy and mozzarella cheese

Legend has it, however, that disco fries were invented by drunks returning from New York City’s disco clubs in the 1970s. I’ve been told in the past that they were invented at the Tick Tock Diner in Clifton. It is a destination for Bridge and Tunnel after parties, like most of my high school class after prom. Located, just a few minutes outside of the Lincoln Tunnel, the Tick Tock has always been a late night destination. And in the 1970s, people did love driving home drunk.

On the other hand, I knew a girl I knew in college insisted they had been invented at the Menlo Park Diner, as though Thomas Edison himself had come along and created the best side dish in Diner history. I personally think that’s just some Central Jersey myth building.

Some guy named Andrew once called into the 101.5 radio station to claim he invented disco fries back in the 1970s. Sure, Andrew, whatever you say.

Not all disco fires are topped with mozzarella. American cheese is also regularly available, but it’s definitely trashier. The sliced American cheese congeals around the fries reminiscent of a plastic wrap. I grew up preferring the sliced American version, but my more sophisticated wife insisted I order mozzarella.

We were telling our friend from south Jersey about this little adventure and asked her what she preferred on her disco fries. She thought the choices were between American slices and Cheese Wiz, which seems like the influence of Philadelphia cheesesteak culture. I guess that’s what you get in Pork Roll territory.

Disco fries are also geographically limited, although they can be found a bit further afield than Taylor Ham. I’ve had them as far north as diners in Connecticut. Court Square Diner in Queens also serves them. I’ve also had them in Philadelphia suburbs, but there the preferred pork product is scrapple, a whole different kind of processed meat.

There really is no better meal than a Taylor Ham Pork Roll, egg and cheese with a side of disco fries. For me, biting into one of these is like biting in nostalgia.

Taylor Ham Egg and Cheese

Kaiser Roll
American Cheese
Taylor Ham
Cut a radius into each slice of Taylor Ham (to prevent curling)
Fry Taylor Ham
In separate pot, fry egg over medium
Top with cheese and cover long enough to melt cheese.
Assembly sandwich on Kaiser Roll

Disco Fries

Can of brown Gravy
French fries (but not shoestring)
Cheese of Choice
Heat can of brown gravy
Fry French Fries
Plate fries on heat safe plate
Cover in gravy
Top with cheese
Broil until golden brown

Next week on All The Things I Eat: I explain the meaning of Goosey Night; we dive into the history of Texas wieners; Bruce Springsteen gets arrested.


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