"The Jersey staple."
That's Jeff Hurley's succinct description of pork roll, the salty, grilled (or fried) processed meat product that has a fanatical following throughout the state of New Jersey. As president and general manager of the Trenton Thunder, Hurley has been an integral part of a years-long campaign to celebrate pork roll at the ballpark. The Thunder -- Double-A affiliate of the New York Yankees -- have a concourse "Pork Roll Paradise" concession stand exclusively devoted to items containing pork roll and host an annual "River Fest" at the ballpark highlighted by a pork roll eating contest.
But in 2018, the Thunder have made pork roll part of their identity. Literally. Every Friday home game, for the remainder of the season, the team is suiting up as the Thunder Pork Roll. This writer was in attendance May 18 for the Thunder Pork Roll's debut, a cool and cloudy but nonetheless historic evening at Arm & Hammer Ballpark.
New Jerseyans are united in their love of pork roll, but deeply divided when it comes to the specific terminology. Those in the northern portion of the state generally refer to it as "Taylor ham." This is a reference to the Taylor Provisions company, a prominent pork roll manufacturer. Those in the south simply call it pork roll. The Thunder, located in central New Jersey, are clear about where they stand.
2018 Road Trip
"In Jersey you've got the Taylor ham and the pork roll argument," said Hurley. "And we're team pork roll all the way."
The Thunder serve Case's-brand pork roll, a Trenton-based company with whom the team has a longstanding relationship. Tom Dolan, president of Case's, was in attendance for the Thunder Pork Roll's on-field debut. Did he ever think he'd see such a thing? A professional baseball team wearing uniforms featuring an anthropomorphic pork roll logo?
"No, never. Never, never, never," said Dolan, perhaps still trying to wrap his head around the concept. "I mean, it's perfect. Twenty-five years of [the Thunder] being here and pork roll being a Trenton mainstay. It's a great relationship, you know? It works perfect."
In the world of Minor League Baseball, alternate team identities celebrating regional food items have become commonplace. In fact, the Thunder aren't even the first team to utilize such a moniker, as last season fellow Garden Staters the Lakewood BlueClaws suited up as the "Pork Rolls" for one game.
"I think we realized how much pork roll was such a delicacy here in Trenton," said Hurley. "So it just continues to grow and we try to be creative as possible every year and grow the pork roll somehow.... Obviously it's a perfect fit for us and we've always had a lot of fun with it, so we took the next step and worked with [design firm] Brandiose for the logo and the mascot and the wording. I basically sat in a meeting with them and said, 'If you can make pork roll into a mascot, I think we've got something.' And, you know, after a couple of drafts we had it and we were like, 'OK, this is it, we're going forward with it.'"
The Thunder now sell a preponderance of pork roll-themed hats and shirts in their team store. Dolan, despite having made a living in the pork roll business, was not sporting any gear.
"Nah, I don't think they make [the sizes] that big," he said with a laugh. "I eat too much pork roll. Just on the grill is the best way. I kind of like tangy the best, but the mild's very good too. On a sandwich, or even with a burger -- it's very good that way. But any way you make it, you can't go wrong."
"Pork roll, egg and cheese on a kaiser bun," added Hurley. "Or on a bagel. That's good too."
The Thunder's pork roll offerings include a simple sandwich topped with cheese, available for $1 on select evenings. But they offer nearly a dozen other items, including the Thunder Dog (a hot dog topped with pork roll and cheese), the Swine Sandwich (pork roll, pulled pork and bacon bits on a kaiser roll) and the Sticky Pig (pork roll, bacon, egg, cheese and red pepper jam served on a glazed donut).
This latter item was the creation of food and beverage director Kelly Kromer, a native of Nazareth, Pennsylvania, who had never eaten pork roll prior to taking a job with the Thunder.
"It was just one of those things, you wake up at 2 a.m. and there it is," said Kromer, who added that after a brainstorming session to name the item, "The Sticky Pig just stuck."
Also in attendance on this evening was Jim Weigand, a native of nearby Hamilton, New Jersey, and a self-professed pork roll fanatic who eats it for "breakfast, lunch and dinner." I had recruited Weigand to serve as the evening's "Designated Eater"; in this role it was his job to sample a variety of pork roll-based concession items. While Weigand offered high praise for all of the items he sampled, he was particularly eloquent when it came to the Thunder Dog.
"This is what baseball is in Trenton," he said. "You've got your traditional hot dog, then you've got pork roll. That's all you need: the tang of the pork roll, the bite of the hot dog and the creaminess of the cheese and it all comes together."