I had to do it. Honestly, I couldn't resist.
You may have heard that Whole Foods Market has done what many loyal New Jerseyans will label sacrilege. They paid someone to "reinvent" pork roll. Even more scandalous, they found a guy in New York, from a charcuterie named Vincenza's, to do it. And, by the way, they charge $14.99 a pound. For that price, you could get at least double the weight in Taylor ham or Case pork roll. Or scads more of the Shop Rite brand, if you're slumming. Just sayin.'
Now, you know I take my station as Hidden New Jersey reporter very seriously, as I do my dedication to the gift Senator John Taylor bestowed on a grateful state in 1856. If anyone is going to challenge the established hierarchy of the official meat of the Jersey breakfast, I'm going to check it out.
I heard that Whole Foods locations were selling the stuff as quickly as they could stock it, so I optimistically went to the Vauxhall location to try my luck. This is what I saw in the prepared meats case:
"Nostalgic for that Jersey breakfast treat?" Seriously? I could pick it up at the supermarket down the street. Small batches? Traditional linen casings? I spied the roll behind the counter glass to see that its place of origin is in Queens. Feeling generous, I supposed that they had to leave the area of Taylor/Case dominance to get someone uninfluenced to put together an original recipe.
I requested a quarter pound, and as the deli counter person sliced it, I asked if they were selling a lot of it. Indeed, several customers a day were calling to check availability, with many coming in to make a purchase. What I didn't think to ask was whether people are coming back for seconds. Sliced meat in hand, I wandered off to find a good kaiser roll.
Once I got home, I got all of the necessary items together:
(Yeah, I could have gone with fancier cheese, but it would have detracted from the experiment.)
The pork roll was sliced much thinner than the pre-sliced boxed version of Taylor ham -- probably somewhere between 1/8 and 1/16 of an inch thick. Consistent with the "finely crafted" aspect of the brand, there were actually inadvertent holes in some of the slices, probably where the meat hadn't been ground sufficiently.
I decided to cook it two ways -- traditional frying and the old reliable "I'm too hungry to wait" method, microwaving. This is one place where the Whole Foods folks win: the stuff fries up so quickly that there's no real advantage in nuking it...
... except for the grease, which will get soaked up by the paper towels you should nest pork roll in when you toss it in the microwave. The Whole Foods option, ironically, seems to kick off a lot more fat than either Taylor or Case, which, while offering a degree of deliciousness, is not exactly recommended by four out of five cardiologists.
And as I discovered, one of the big drawbacks of the thin, thin, thin slice is its inability to retain heat. By the time I got the cheese on it and transferred it to the roll, it was lukewarm. I didn't dare add ketchup, lest it drop the temperature another ten degrees or so. And it just didn't seem to be enough meat to measure up to the average-sized kaiser roll.
As for the taste, well, I'll give them this: it's got a very pleasant flavor, distinct from either of our storied brands. The label refuses to list the various spices, but a Bergen Record report says that coriander, port wine and white pepper are among them, combined with "natural smoke flavor," sea salt and sugar. I'll take their word for it. If they were going for something closely approximating pork roll, I guess they've accomplished that.
Thing is, I don't see the stuff overtaking our old traditionals anytime soon. Perhaps Martha Stewart will use it along with an artisinal cheese in her take on the Jersey Breakfast, but I'm guessing it'll be a long, long wait before you see it on a diner menu. Myself, I'm not convinced enough to spend the extra money, though I wouldn't toss the Vicenza's stuff if someone gave it to me. Bottom line, Senator Taylor's folks have nothing to worry about: they still have my business.
Addendum: Twelve hours after ingesting said gourmet pork roll, I awoke with agita. Not that I'm blaming the product. It just may have been my body's attempt to reject non-New Jersey pork roll like a mismatched donor organ.