If you’ve grown up and stayed close to your hometown, you may take your favorite foods for granted. During your childhood, your world is small, and things that are familiar to you are surely familiar to everyone else, right?

But for those of us who find ourselves far from home, the lesson of regional foods is a harsh reality check. Suddenly, that staple food product feels like it’s gone completely. You’ll find yourself Googling the limitations of dry ice and begging your buddies for a package to satisfy the craving.

The United States is so big and so diverse, and the abundance of regional ingredients, recipe, and products are vast. Here at The Culinary Institute of America, where food is life, we love nothing more than exploring unfamiliar foods and learning how to use them.

In the spirit of exploration, we’re going to start investigating regional foods from every corner of the country to see what you grew up eating (and what you can't live without!). We’re going to start on the east coast in the great state of New Jersey with a product you may not know – and even its biggest fans aren’t quite sure what to call it.

Depending on where you are in the state, New Jersey’s most notorious regional food is either called pork roll or Taylor ham – but whatever you call it, the food is the same: a tubed-meat breakfast staple that is served sliced and pan-fried, reminiscent of Spam.

Taylor pork roll tube

For the sake of simplicity (and because the package does say pork roll) we’re going to call it pork roll. Pork roll is produced by Taylor Provisions in Trenton, NJ, and is a blend of pork, mild spices, and curing ingredients that is packed into a tube and smoked. The flavor reminds you of a cross between Canadian bacon and salami, and like lots of breakfast meats, is notable for its fatty saltiness. You can buy it in grocery stores as either the whole tube or pre-sliced, for your convenience.

In its most typical use, slices of pork roll are pan-fried in a skillet until they are crispy around the edges and browned to salty perfection. The essential insider cooking technique is to cut a small notch into the side of each slice so it doesn’t bubble up in the pan. Ideally, cooked pork roll would be topped with American cheese and a fried egg before being transferred to a perfectly chewy Kaiser roll (known in New Jersey as a “hard roll”). The quintessential order from a deli is “pork roll, egg, and cheese on a hard roll.” Purists will skip the ketchup, but it can be just the pop of acidity this otherwise rich sandwich needs.

Across the state, you’ll find pork roll sandwiched inside everything bagels, chopped up into omelets, and overall competing with bacon for Best Cured Meat Product. You will be hard-pressed to find a home in New Jersey that doesn’t have pork roll in the refrigerator, but outside of the state, you’re hard-pressed to find someone who has even heard of it.

If you’re inspired to try pork roll, go to New Jersey. Or, because this is a global food community and convenience is basically expected, you can order it online. And now that you know about what the citizens of New Jersey are eating for breakfast, tell us your favorite regional specialties so we can share them with your fellow foodies!

(title image: Ted Kerwin. License)

(Taylor Pork Roll image: Way Tru. License)