For those of you who live outside of New Jersey and wonder “what the hell is pork roll, and why is there now a pork roll day?,” walk with me for a minute. I myself am a lifelong New Jersey resident (born and raised in the capital city of Trenton), and while the state is often labeled as the armpit of America (f*ck you, too), great things do come out of the Garden State: The Sopranos, Redman, and pork roll.
Pork roll, which is known by many as “Taylor ham,” has allegedly been around since the 1850s. Some dude named John Taylor is credited as having a recipe for what Wikipedia describes as this “pork-based processed meat” product back in 1856. A little over a decade later, in 1870, NJ-based George Washington Case (the man behind the other main brand in pork roll) came up with his own recipe. Despite their success, Taylor Provisions and Case Pork Roll both still manufacture their products within the Trenton area. While many primarily use it as a breakfast meat—it goes great on a Kaiser roll with eggs and cheese—Trenton’s known for the famous “Trenton burger” (or what my mom refers to as the heart attack burger), which features a slice (or two) of pork roll on a cheeseburger for an extra flourish. I’ve always been astonished at how many people don’t know about pork roll; it’s truly one of those “Jersey things” that makes me laugh when suckers throw shade at my state—and my pork roll.
On May 24, 2014, two Trenton-based pork roll lovers—T.C. Nelson, owner of one of my favorite watering holes, Trenton Social, and Scott Miller, the owner of Exit 7A Studios—came together to throw the inaugural Trenton Pork Roll Festival at Trenton Social. It was a magical event, complete with a “Miss Pork Roll” contest, a pork roll recipe battle, live music, bomb-ass food trucks, and a chill beer garden. Many came, saw, and ate the hell out of pork roll, to the point where a special delivery of it had to be coordinated in the early afternoon because they were already running out of the breakfast meat. Fun was had by all, with hopes of returning for Memorial Day Weekend 2015 to partake in pork-based delight once again.
In early March of 2015, it was announced that the Trenton Pork Roll Festival would be returning for round two—but not at Trenton Social. With the intent to “find a bigger venue and to have the maximum biggest possible economic benefit for the city,” Scott Miller planned on bringing the Pork Roll Festival to Mill Hill Park in Trenton on May 23rd. Not too long after, T.C. Nelson announced his own Trenton Pork Roll Festival, which would still take place on May 23rd at Trenton Social where last year’s event was held.
That’s two festivals, both surrounding this amazing pork meat, happening within blocks from each other. While this should’ve been an easy win for anyone looking to feast on pork roll all day, the drama was set to tear the city down. Miller claimed that it was never his intention to return to Trenton Social, while Nelson told The Trentonian that the 2014 event was oversold, which caused some negative feels towards the organizers, and that for Miller “to get a clean slate this year, he wanted to blame it all on Trenton Social.” Scott Miller ultimately sent Nelson a cease & desist letter over the “2nd annual” branding on Nelson’s festival, but on May 23rd, both pork roll festivals (along with the DIY “Trenton Vegan Pork Roll Festival”) were set to do battle.
While this should’ve been an easy win for anyone looking to eat pork roll all day, the drama was set to tear the city down.
Being the pork roll-loving fatboy that I am, I made sure my calendar was free, my Air Max Tavas were ready, and my belly was empty. The plan? To tackle each of the main festivals, then cool out at the Vegan festival.
We started our day off at the Trenton Pork Roll Festival at Trenton Social, and I remember having to stand in line for 90-minutes (!) to get my pork roll on (I told you, that spot was LIT). I wanted to get in on the festivities bright and early, and with a sunny, breezy day on the books, that was the prime spot at 10 a.m. Plus, they had this bomb-ass pork roll Bloody Mary (garnished with fresh pork roll).
Trenton burger = pork roll on a cheeseburger (Photo: @beautyjudy)
The atmosphere at the Trenton PRF was a bit more adult—while some kids were milling about, it appeared to be that those who wanted to get their drink on just hit the Social. With pork roll Bloody Marys in hand, we got to relax in the beer garden while DJ Itsjustahmad spun some Michael Jackson alongside the sample sources for bangers like Raekwon’s “Incarcerated Scarfaces,” even throwing in some Morris Day into the mix. The food was on point: another local bar, Killarney’s, was serving up Trenton burgers, featuring BBQ sauce, cheese, and thick beef patties topped with pork roll. Wifey had some fire funnel cake, which was topped with their secret Jameson Caramel sauce, along with apples and some diced pork roll—that thing was a winner. Sumo Sushi returned with their Pork Roll Sushi rolls, and they also had food trucks with pork roll fries, pork roll-topped donuts, and more.
Funnel cake with Jameson caramel and pork roll. (Photo: Twitter/@NJTrainDelays)
After getting our fill, we decided to take a quick walk to Mill Hill Park for the Pork Roll Festival—emphasis on festival. Mill Hill Park is a beautiful and typically under-utilized spot. That wasn’t the case here; every square inch of that Park was turnt up. With a huge music stage and loads of seating, the Pork Roll Festival was packed to the gills. There were numerous vendors selling art, toys for the kids, and hand-crafted slingshots and necklaces; even the Southern Breeze Sweet Tea people were out giving samples (word to the wise, that shit is fire).
Some of my favorite local food trucks—including the WTF Food Truck, as well as the Surf & Turf folks—all had pork roll-filled dishes (although word was that some of the spots were running out fast). While Mill Hill Park was definitely more packed, which could be seen as a win, at times it felt too overwhelming; their “beer garden” was essentially a huge circle with an orange barrier around it, with lines for different things snaking in random directions. It definitely felt more kid-friendly, although having a festival in a park versus holding one in the parking lot of a bar will or course do that. They had hula hoopers out there, as well as aikido demonstrations (#shrug) and some room for kids to run around. A huge turn out, but when it was time to actually dig in, you had to pay for that turn out.
Ultimately, people who fuck with pork roll are the real winners.
We made the short hike to the Trenton Vegan Pork Roll Festival, which SAGE Coalition member Graham Apgar threw at the Gandhi Garden in Trenton. For 2 p.m., the turnout was pretty small, and it was certainly the most mellow of all three. There were no big sponsors, but there was a grill set for vegan treats, a section for silk-screening t-shirts, and a small stage that folks would jam on. It’s a dope little outdoor nook on an artist’s block, but it felt like there were SO MANY PORK ROLL LOVERS at the other two locations that the Vegan Pork Roll Festival seemed overshadowed. Something tells me the folks down there weren’t tripping about it, though.
Trenton Pork Roll Festival was amazing. . pic.twitter.com/5fqPOcVG2C
— Skip (@HouseofSkip) May 23, 2015
The question remains: Which festival reigns supreme? It depends on what you were looking for. If you wanted a louder, high-octane festival vibe, the Pork Roll Festival in Mill Hill Park was your ticket. It brought out a bunch of local food trucks, which all had exciting interpretations on standard dishes. It had a bigger stage, along with space for kids to frolic in. Ultimately, at the time we arrived (around 1:30 p.m.), it definitely had more people, for better or worse. For a more adult-oriented vibe, the Trenton Pork Roll Festival at Trenton Social was your ticket. The staff there is awesome, the beer garden wasn’t crowded (or an eyesore), and there was more room to chill, converse, and enjoy the variety of pork roll meals.
Ultimately, people who f*ck with pork roll are the real winners. Two dope venues that were dedicating entire festivals to delicious pork roll meats!? What else does a fatboy need? Hopefully, as T.C. Nelson originally said, the two can settle their differences, meet out on South Broad Street, and combine forces once again for the love of pork roll. Until then, I honestly don’t care; throw 40 pork roll festivals in Trenton, I’ll hit each one.