In New Jersey, Even the Pork Roll Festivals Have Beef

Two of them are held in Trenton on the Saturday of Memorial Day Weekend, at the same time and blocks away from each other.

by Alex Norcia; photos by Mike Breen
|
Jun 11 2018, 3:17pm

On Christmas mornings, before my parents legally hated each other, my father would wake up after all of us and insist he cook breakfast. We would begrudgingly delay opening presents as he prepared a feast, most often in his underwear. Pancakes, eggs, waffles on that contraption we mistakenly purchased for him the year before. Home fries, bacon, sausage. And pork roll, of course. This was fucking Jersey, baby, in the late 90s. Slightly burnt, or a little charred—it would please our mouths long enough to forget we were upset about the wrapped commodities under the tree.

Everything about it is nearly impossible to describe to the uninitiated. But I’ll try—I’ll always try: It’s a ham-esque substance that comes in a cylindrical shape, though it’s usually sold cut up into discrete circles, and tastes like the salty offspring of bacon. Interested? I suppose it doesn’t matter. What matters is that I’ll remember my dad this way, always: half-naked at the stove, waving around a spatula, calling my brother and me “spoiled assholes.”

I tell you this because it is my pork roll origin tale—or what T.C. Nelson, host of the Trenton Pork Roll Festival, would call "some kind of story, if you’re from New Jersey."

"Most people here," he tells me over the phone in mid May, "have a certain connection to the people’s meat. It just transcends from an ordinary protein into something nostalgic."

Nelson speaks in the same looping cadence as my old man, so when he starts a sentence, or when he pauses in the middle of a thought, you’re not quite sure when, or if, he’s going to stop. I’m planning on attending his big day, and I call him up in anticipation of my arrival to know what to expect. And to ask, really, about the other pork roll festival happening on the same street—on the same Saturday of Memorial Day Weekend, at the same time, just a few blocks away.

It’s been happening in the state’s capital for the past four years, and it’s blossomed into the purest definition of war—a minor misunderstanding taken way too seriously. In Nelson’s version, he and Scott Miller, a Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, native turned Trentonite who has become an active community organizer, initially teamed up in 2014 to produce the inaugural celebration. It was Miller’s idea, Nelson admits, but it was thrown at Trenton Social, the wine bar Nelson owns. In Miller’s opinion, Nelson didn’t seem all that interested in being involved to begin with.

“We held maybe 15 planning meetings at his restaurant, so that he could be part of it,” Miller tells me. “But he never came to any of them.”

As year two was approaching, Nelson noticed that “[Miller] wanted to take ownership of it.” So they amicably parted ways to do their own thing, NJ.com reports, albeit ten minutes away from each other. Then, a few weeks before their first solo shindigs in 2015, Nelson received a cease and desist letter from Miller’s attorney, who primarily took issue with marketing and brand names. (Miller now hosts what he calls the Official Pork Roll Festival, in Mill Hill Park—the site, he proudly declares, of the Second Battle of Trenton, where Washington refused to surrender to the Hessians.)

“He wants to be the Czar of Pork Roll in this town dictating who, when, where, and how a Trenton product can be sold, marketed, and celebrated, and he is a fool,” Nelson wrote on Facebook then, according to NJ.com. “Before it was a friendly competition, now it is not.”

But even with all that behind them, time, it turns out, does not heal all wounds.

In a Trentonian column published two days before the event this year, it quotes Miller as saying, “Mr. Nelson has perpetuated a false narrative… Everything I say is completely verifiable.” And what does Mr. Nelson think? He told the paper: “I have a son, and when I’m done kicking Miller’s ass at pork roll festivals, my son will start kicking his ass.”

Chatting with Miller, he’s less amused and confrontational. He sounds like a bohemian from a lost era: “Fifteen years ago, I bought an abandoned building in downtown Trenton,” he says. “And I moved here and fixed it up, and I use it as both my home and my office.” (He runs, basically, a creative studio, called Exit 7A.) He believes the narrative of two dueling pork roll festivals is a tired one—the media constantly couching him and Nelson against each other—even if he “can’t think of a place in the world that has, like, two things going on at the same time with the same name.”

"I’m the most passive, easy-going guy,” he says. “I don’t want to be associated with conflict—I’m not even from New Jersey. It’s not in my blood to be that way at all.”

And Nelson, a lifelong Trenton resident, will admit there’s a somewhat tongue-in-cheek aspect to the rivalry at the very least.

“There’s a history of this in the city,” he tells me. “You know, there were two famous Italian restaurants—Amici’s and Marsilio’s—and they absolutely were at each other’s throats their entire career. The bread wars of Trenton, where people were lighting each other’s bread trucks on fire. It’s like Romeo and Juliet.” Or, he continues, more like “Case and Taylor,” referencing the two pork roll brands—the de facto oligarchy the pair has had on the Garden State’s taste buds for centuries. And, fuck, Jersey can’t even agree what to call it. In the northern and central parts, it’s typically Taylor Ham; in the south, it’s pork roll. (In Trenton, where the meat was born, Miller notes, “people actually don’t give a shit. The banter about that seems to irritate them as much as the banter between these two festivals.”)

Despite Miller’s reservations, this is my favorite part of the Jersey ethos: minor squabbles blown way out of proportion. Nelson and Miller—these are my brethren, my bros, my paisans. We lean into the image of how the outside world sees us, as I did, in that previous sentence, where I made it appear as if I actually use the word “paisan.” I am at home, then, on Saturday, May 26, 2018, traveling back and forth between these two warring pig parties, on an afternoon when it’s approximately 1 million degrees Fahrenheit, the exact temperature at which you want to consume pork products.

It’s immediately apparent Nelson and Miller have creative differences, too—divergent conceptions on how to honor the sacred delicacy. Nelson’s is more focused on, well, food. His takes place in that small lot behind his restaurant. I eat everything—a pork roll, egg, and cheese; a Trenton burger (a cheeseburger with pork roll on it); pork roll pizza (pizza with pork roll on it). Robbie, of the Pork Roll Store in Allentown, Pennsylvania, smiles and informs me her pork roll is “fresh and made with love.” She hands me a pork roll shish kebab squished between pineapple and cherries off a tiny grill, next to which a senior citizen is chain-smoking.

A “superhero” Nelson conceived, whom he dubbed “P. Roll,” wanders around somewhat confusingly in pink tights, posing for pictures. He calls his weapon, a long slab of pork roll, “the meat of justice.” (“Kids love him,” Nelson says. “Women adore him. Guys want to hang out with him.”) I haven’t seen better T-shirts in my life—attendees are walking manifestations of a Jersey boardwalk, brandishing slogans across their chests that capture the beautiful antagonism of this land. (One for instance: “New Jersey… We Don’t Like You Either.”)

(And following the trend of unnecessary feuds: Here, I’m obliged to approach the Windy Brow Farms tent, and try their pork roll ice cream, because I had written its very existence was an abomination to the state. They invited me to come eat some, and I have to say, with all sincerity, it was a fine and largely unnecessary flavor.)

A few hours later, down the street at Miller’s, I stand in the middle of a fair in a public park, basking in the sun. His whole soirée is more DIY-inspired (like, he says, the Trenton Punk Rock Flea Market) and community-oriented.

“We’re really a mixed bag of people,” he tells me. “Trenton is not synonymous with beauty—it be hard to start a winery or something.”

So here's what you have instead. You can sit in a Ghostbusters car for $5 cash. Grown men and women attempt to show off their hula-hooping skills. Cops patrol the grounds, eating ice cream cones. Multiple veterans’ organizations ask for donations. Kids get their faces painted. A band of teenagers play hits from the 80s. There are food trucks, too, many of the same ones at Nelson’s. A bouncy castle incessantly deflates. A pork roll queen is crowned, and during the ceremony, which consists of limericks and a toddler singing that song from Frozen, one of the contestants shows off her baby, donned in a pork roll box, like Rafiki presenting Simba to the animal kingdom. Everyone, by the looks of it, is thoroughly enjoying themselves, especially the local radio DJ serving as the emcee, who is not shy with the microphone and reminds everyone in attendance that they are currently at the “official” pork roll festival.

On my journey over there, from Nelson’s property to Miller’s borrowed public park, a wedding spills out onto the otherwise desolate road. Church bells ring. The bride and groom pose for a photo. How nice, I think, that a pair of souls can dedicate their lives to each other, in those outfits at this temperature. I’m remembering this on my way back to the train station, on that same road hours later—how funny it is, between the respective pork roll festivals of two kind-of-but-not-really battling men, that there’s a moment, perhaps, of true love. A literal middle ground. This, dare I say, is poignant. Between the farcical hate, there’s joyous understanding. Then, in the midst of my poetry, I walk by a different couple, this one screaming at each other, prompting the woman to climb on top of her boyfriend’s parked car and repeatedly start bashing her fist into the windshield.

Maybe Miller is right. Maybe there really is something in our blood.

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