Author and chef Michael Ruhlman recently wrote a post explaining why he cooks. He went on to challenge other food bloggers to do the same. Never one to be shy about expressing myself, I’m joining the fray.
Most of these points have been made individually as I’ve cooked and written here In Our Grandmothers’ Kitchens. I thought I’d summarize them today.
First, I cook (and write about food) because it gives me an integrated life. It merges the private and the public. Nothing could be more personal than feeding ourselves and our families. Yet cooking is at its best a social enterprise. It also holistically touches simultaneously on the intellectual, the physical, and the emotional.
Second, I cook because I was brought up to do so. My family generally prepared meals instead of buying them precooked. And when my mother wanted to get to know someone new, or to maintain a friendship she cherished, she hosted a dinner party. In my childhood home food symbolized family, friendship, and love. It symbolizes them for me today.
That tradition leads me to my paramount reason for cooking. I cook because cooking helps me reach out to other people.
Cooking is a wonderful shared endeavor, one that spans the generations. My nephew Michael is an excellent mixer and egg breaker. At 91 my mother can no longer read very well and is a lot less mobile than she used to be, but she still loves to sift or stir or just set the table. Cooking with me makes her feel useful and alive in a way that few activities can at this point in her life. And it brings us closer together.
Cooking obviously touches those whom I feed as well as those with whom I cook. It also helps me to touch those whose recipes and cooking styles I use, in the past or in the present.
With a wooden spoon in one hand and a pot in the other, I can stand beside my grandmother, a neighbor, a school friend from India, or an author whose works I admire.
Finally, I cook because I am interested in many different fields of study. I know it sometimes seems like a stretch to my readers when I link a recipe to film or literature or television or American history. I thank you for your patience and warn you that I’m going to keep on stretching. I love the way in which cooking and writing about food can be tied to just about anything.
Cooking thus becomes a way for me to stay sane, to keep in touch with the people I love and want to know better, and to learn about topics that stir my passions.
It nourishes me in many ways—and it helps me make friends and learn new things every day.
From the Theoretical to the Mundane: Taylor Pork Roll
Mentioning learning new things leads me to today’s recipe.
I’m still figuring out Twitter; I haven’t completely bonded with it yet. Nevertheless, I try to look at people’s tweets once or twice a day. A couple of days ago Lynne Oliver of The Food Timeline posted a message that read as follows:
If you’re from New Jersey, you know all about Taylor Pork Roll! http://tinyurl.com/yjjucme.
Now I was born in New Jersey, and I spend a lot of time visiting my mother’s house there. And I had never heard of this stuff before I saw Olver’s tweet.
According to Olver’s post, Taylor Pork Roll is a processed pork product—a cross between spam and summer sausage—first made in the early 20th century by a company founded by John Taylor of Trenton, New Jersey.
(She notes that some sources trace Pork Roll to the mid-1850s and even in some form to the American Revolution but adds that she can find no evidence that it was made that early.)
I did a quick internet search, and it turns out that many folks from New Jersey are indeed completely gaga about this product. One company makes a living sending the Pork Roll and similar products to members of the Jersey diaspora in other states; grateful customers have written to its web site sharing their fond memories of Taylor Pork Roll.
This comment from a Texas resident sums up the sentiment: “Even know [sic] the thought of it makes my mouth water and makes me feel like a kid again.”
The Pork Roll is also known in some circles as Taylor Ham. The Taylor Ham fan page on Facebook, which has more than 15,000 members, maintains that it was founded for “fans of what may possibly be New Jersey’s greatest contribution to the world.”
As a major admirer of both Frank Sinatra and Jon Stewart I was eager to try a product that might nose them out in the New Jersey hierarchy. Some writers have called Taylor Pork Roll “the heroin of pork.”
I ventured to the ShopRite Supermarket near my mother’s home in Millburn and looked in the meat case. Sure enough, right near the bacon I found a packet of sliced Taylor Pork Roll. (It is apparently also marketed in rolls like salami, but I wanted only a little bit so the slices suited me just fine.)
I peered into the packet, and one of the store employees asked me what I was looking for. When I informed him that I had never seen Taylor Pork Roll before he widened his eyes. “Where are YOU from?” he asked. Obviously, I will have to ask another state to issue me a birth certificate.
The most popular use for Taylor Pork Roll is apparently the “Jersey Sandwich” a.k.a. the “Jersey Breakfast Sandwich” a.k.a. the “Triple Bypass.” This is a sandwich made of warmed Taylor Pork Roll, a fried egg, and melted cheese on a bun.
I’m pretty sure the roll should be a Kaiser, but I had only ciabatta rolls in the house. And the cheese should definitely be American, but I substituted cheddar.
Next time, I think I would use thinner bread and perhaps leave out one ingredient—combine the Pork Roll with eggs, or make a grilled cheese sandwich with pork roll.
Both my mother and I found the sandwich tasty (who could resist all that fat?), but it was too heavy to finish. Truffle was happy to help eat some of the leftovers, of course.
The Jersey Sandwich
1 hard roll
a small amount of butter as needed
2 pieces Taylor Pork Roll (I bought the 6 ounce package with 8 slices so 2 slices weighed 1.5 ounces; a higher proportion of Pork Roll might appeal to some)
1 ounce cheese, thinly sliced (American or cheddar)
Preheat the broiler. Place aluminum foil on a flat, ovenproof pan.
Split the roll in two and butter both inside pieces lightly. Place the slices on the foil-covered pan.
Cut four notches in each piece of Pork Roll so that it will not curl up as it cooks; the notches should come in about three quarters of an inch from the edge. (See photo.)
In a frying pan over medium heat cook the pork pieces until they are warm and lightly browned on both sides. Remove them and set them aside.
If there is not enough fat in the pan to fry your eggs melt a little more butter in the pan. Quickly fry your eggs. (They won’t need salt and pepper because the Pork Roll contains a ton of sodium and spices.)
Place the slices of Pork Roll on the bottom piece of the roll. Place the egg on top, and cover it with the cheese. Pop the roll under the broiler and cook until the cheese has just melted.
Cover the sandwich and serve immediately. Makes 1 very filling sandwich.
Truffle is still hoping for more Taylor Pork Roll!
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