Iconic Foods of New Jersey

Max Miller • Jun 14, 2017


A note: a comprehensive list of good foods and cuisines in New Jersey would be impossible. New Jersey being the ridiculously diverse state that it is, I don't hope to ever be able to sample and judge the myriad options available. These are just a couple of famous NJ foods.

Confession time: I was born in New York. I was raised by self-exiled New Yorkers, who conditioned me to believe that everything in New Jersey was terrible, and everything in New York was amazing. This especially applied to food. I adopted my parents' blind antipathy for restaurants in New Jersey, and disparaged my friends who disagreed. I dragged my friends to the city, claiming that any restaurant in Chinatown would be a million times better than our local outposts.

As I have aged and matured, I have become more adventurous in my palate, and this includes accepting New Jersey as a possible location for good food.

Maybe I am not the best person to write this article. You'll find out an especially damning reason why in the first section. You're welcome to contribute and add your opinions. But for now, you're stuck with mine. Bear with me as I attempt to highlight a few food items central to NJ identity.

Taylor Ham vs. Pork Roll

Another confession: I've never had this meat, under any name. This may well disqualify me entirely in your eyes. I don't know what to say -- breakfast sandwiches were not a big thing in my family growing up, and once I started eating them, bacon seemed infinitely more appealing. Honestly I don't even know if it was popular in our town. Maybe because it was an affluent town, or maybe because it was largely Jewish.

Regardless, it's hard to deny that this substance is culturally important to New Jersey. Now marketed as Taylor brand pork roll, the meat was first packaged and sold in 1856 as "Taylor's prepared ham." The namesake and vendor was John Taylor, an influential Trenton businessman and politician. [1] However, New Jersey folklore indicates that rolls of cured salted pork were carried by soldiers of the Continental Army as field rations as early as the Battle of Trenton. [2] George Washington Case, a farmer and butcher from Belle Mead, created his own recipe for pork roll in 1870, and Case's Pork Roll is still being sold today. [3] From what I can understand, Case's is seen as a bit of an alternative choice to the premiere Taylor brand, though I'm sure Case's has plenty of diehard fans.

In 1906 the US Congress passed the Pure Food and Drugs Act, establishing the Food and Drug Administration. This is widely cited as the cause for the renaming of John Taylor's brand to "Taylor's pork roll," as the product no longer met the legal definition of ham. However, I have found no legal text that establishes a definition of ham, so this remains murky to me.

Traditionally, the meat is served fried on a roll or bagel, with a fried egg and American cheese (known as a Jersey breakfast). In April 2016, NJ Assemblyman Tim Eustace introduced Bill A3667, "designating the Taylor Ham, egg, and cheese sandwich as the New Jersey State Sandwich." [4] This bill has not been voted on.

You'll note that the official bill text uses "Taylor ham" and not "pork roll." You'll also note that Tim Eustace represents District 38, which is squarely in the northeastern corner of the state. The usage of the one denomination caused quite an uproar, and NJ.com set out in June 2016 to see what name was preferred where. [5]

You can see here that Taylor ham is preferred in North Jersey, and pork roll in Central and South Jersey. Editor's note: compare the TH/PR border to the North Jersey / Central Jersey border, from a similar NJ.com poll.

If I had to weigh in on the name, I'd lean towards Taylor ham; pork roll sounds more like a meat product than a meat to me. But maybe that's just my northern NJ exceptionalism.

[1] http://jerseyporkroll.com/about/
[2] http://www.nj.com/insidejersey/index.ssf/2009/04/how_new_jersey_saved_civilizat_5.html
[3] http://www.caseporkrollnj.com/about
[4] http://www.njleg.state.nj.us/2016/Bills/A4000/3667_I1.HTM
[5] http://www.nj.com/news/index.ssf/2016/06/results_of_our_great_pork_roll_vs_taylor_ham_battle_divide_nj.html

Diners

Since this isn't a technical foodstuff and is rather a food serving locale, I'll just quickly say that diners are near and dear to many a New Jerseyan's heart. You might order your favorite processed pork meat sandwich here, or you might order New Jersey's famous disco fries (french fries with melted cheese and gravy). Most importantly, you might do all this at 2 AM, because the best NJ diners are open 24 hours.

Italian Influence

Heavy in its impact on New Jersey's culture is the Italian-American community. So many of New Jersey's fixtures in the dining scene hail from some type of Italian influence, including the pizzeria, the sub shop, the hot dog parlor, and the classic Italian ristorante. Pizza, however, is the most prevalent, in my opinion.

New Jersey pizza will never get the respect it deserves, mainly because of its nearby neighbor with the more prominent reputation. Having lived in both states, my assessment is as follows: the best pizza in NYC is better than the best pizza in NJ, but the median slice in NJ is miles ahead of the median slice in NYC. The streets of NYC are flooded with mediocre $4 slices in do-it-all midtown delis, which are made with no love at all. But let's not talk about New York pizza anymore. Although your average suburban NJ town might not have a great slice, it probably has a decent one, and there is more than likely a great pizza pie within a 20 minute drive. (A note of contention: when a childhood friend moved to NJ from Los Angeles, he laughed at the phrase "pizza pie." Is this not common outside of New Jersey?)

Though I am only learned in northern NJ pizza, apparently there is a such thing as a "tomato pie," a southern NJ / Philadelphia delicacy where the tomato sauce is cooked on top of the toppings (does this word still apply?) and cheese. It might also have a thicker crust, being somewhat related to Sicilian pizza.

I might point someone looking to enjoy a New Jersey slice towards the NJ.com Pizza Power Rankings, conducted annually. [1]

[1] http://www.nj.com/entertainment/index.ssf/2014/10/njs_best_pizza_the_definitive_list_for_national_pizza_month.html

Seafood

Being as renowned for its shore as anything else, one might expect Jersey to be flush with seafood. Down the shore, travelers can find fancy raw bars, fish shacks, and anything in between. Personally, my favorite item of Jersey seafood is the Jersey crab. While not as famous as its Maryland cousin, I find it just as delicious, and with that added touch of familiarity. Places such as Wildwood's H + H Seafood will give you unlimited crabs covered in Old Bay for a certain price, and sitting on picnic tables amongst crab aficionados for hours on end is an experience to be had.

According to the New Jersey Department of Agriculture, "the most valuable fisheries in New Jersey in 2013 were sea scallops ($65.3 million), ocean quahog ($12 million), surf clams ($10.9 million), and blue crabs ($8.1 million)." [1] Quahog and surf clams are used mostly for fried clam products, which are aplenty on the boardwalk.

[1] http://www.jerseyseafood.nj.gov/harvest.html

Sloppy Joes

While the rest of the country thinks of a sloppy joe as ground beef in a hamburger bun, northeastern NJ has a different definition. A sloppy joe in NJ means a double decker sandwich on rye bread, with sliced deli meat (ham is usually considered the "normal" choice), Swiss cheese, coleslaw, and Russian dressing.

The Millburn Deli, in my hometown of Millburn, is also renowned for its sloppy joe.

[1] http://www.nytimes.com/2001/10/21/nyregion/quick-bite-south-orange-where-sloppy-is-neat.html

Chinese Food in New Jersey

This one is tough. For a long time, Chinese restaurants in suburban New Jersey were similar to most of the rest of the country -- highly Americanized, bland, overly sweet dishes that resembled nothing originating from the country of China. However, in recent years there has come a larger demand for authentic Chinese food, both from Chinese immigrants and more adventurous non-Chinese eaters. It can be hard to pick out the good ones, though. There are a couple in northern NJ I am familiar with, mainly in Bergen and Passaic counties.

Editor's note: Edison, in Middlesex County, is developing a reputation as a hotbed of authentic Chinese cuisine. A current resident of the area, who has also lived in regions of China famous for their food, has been known to claim Edison's superiority over Flushing. There is a pressing need for further investigation, and readers of this website should stay tuned for updates.

Relative Newcomers to New Jersey Cuisine

The last 50 years or so, the US has seen a massive influx of immigration from varied parts of the world, and New Jersey is certainly one of the more popular immigrant destinations. While these options are fairly recent additions to the NJ menu, there is no doubt they are making their mark on New Jersey.

Indian food -- Edison and surrounding towns

While South Asian immigration occurs in much of the state, it seems that Edison is the heart of the Indian-American community. I have had many delicious meals here. I've also recently been introduced to Little India on Newark Ave in Jersey City, where I had one very memorable dinner.

Latin-American food -- Urban New Jersey

This is a massively reductionist assignment, as the world of Latin American cuisine is very complex and cannot be simply lumped into one category. However, I am way too inexperienced in enjoying Latin American food in NJ to really talk at length about it (and also it would require a lot more than a blurb). I can name a couple highlights though -- pollo a la brasa, Peruvian rotisserie chicken, is very popular in many an urban New Jersey community, and I've had a couple good ones in Jersey City. Paterson, Elizabeth, Newark, and other parts of Hudson County are other hotspots in Latin-American NJ culture and cuisine.

There's a ton more to cover here, including the famous Campbell Soup factory, Italian sandwiches, hot dogs, bakeries, and many more classic NJ foods. I implore you to assist me in cataloging them!




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