Try to order "pork roll" in most of the country and you'll probably get a blank stare. But 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 on Saturday in Trenton.
To the untrained eye, pork roll looks like Canadian bacon. But New Jersey residents know better.
"It's like Spam meets bacon — but with a whole other set of spices that we don't know anything about," says Maggie Kowalski of Bayonne, N.J. "We just have to accept that. And we do."
Kowalski should know. She is the reigning Miss Pork Roll Queen, a title she won last year at the inaugural Trenton Pork Roll Festival.
"New Jersey kind of gets lost in the shuffle" between neighboring New York and Philadelphia, says Kowalski. "This is something that's just for us. It's for regular people who live in New Jersey. This is for us, by us."
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.
"It was like waking a sleeping giant, or pork rolls lovers," says T.C. Nelson. Nelson owns 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. "It was overwhelming," says Nelson.
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.
"His venue was just too small for what we wanted to do, based on even last year's turnout," says Miller, who 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.
"That was always the intent of the pork roll festival," says Miller, "for it to be something that would have a good, positive impact on the community, that would benefit more people than just myself."
But Nelson did not want the festival to move. He was making plans to host it again at his restaurant.
"I heard whispers and rumbles that he was planning on taking something that we built together," says Nelson. "I wasn't cool with that. I think it was just greed."
Both men 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, Scott Miller's lawyer fired off a cease-and-desist letter. And Miller rejects the charge that he's the greedy one.
"I just kind of ignore stuff," says Miller. "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."