If there is one food event I’ve looked forward to since its inception, it’s the annual Pork Roll Festival in Trenton, now in its 3rd year. Not only does this festival spotlight our capitol city, giving it a much needed positive jolt, but it also highlights a real Trenton original that has blessed kaiser rolls and American cheese with its presence for decades: the humble Pork Roll. So, this past May 28th, I “holla’d” for my “Taste Buds” and we made the pilgrimage to Trenton to pay homage to the divine swine.
I woke up full of anticipation on a sweltering Saturday morning, memories of past pork roll delights dancing on my tongue, excited for what the day held for me. I did all the usual stuff and hopped in the car to meet my “Taste Buds” – Lori Scott Farina, a friend from high school, and Bill Ashcraft, our former math teacher- for this flavorful forray. Initially, I was dubious about mixing one of my favorite things- pork roll- with math, something I had less affinity for but with “Mr. Ashcraft” leaving his quadratic and linear equations at home, there was little to disrupt hog nirvana.
We started off at the birthplace of the Pork Roll Festival, Trenton Social, paying our $5 entrance fee for all day access. There was a healthy crowd at 12pm perusing the offerings in the back lot at the Social, contented smiles and proud grease stains displayed on the lips and shirts of many. All three of us breathed deep and dove in. After seeing people pass by us with a french fry based treat topped with pork roll, beckoning us like some barbeque sauce covered siren, we were pointed in the direction of The Twisted Biscuit. You know you can’t go wrong if there are biscuits involved and a guy named Chef Buddy reeking of pulled pork working the griddle.
Lori approached and ordered “that.” Chef Buddy laughed and went on to describe his version of Loaded Fries, a veritable coronary of french fries, black beans, barbeque sauce, bacon, pork roll, cheddar cheese sauce, all hugged up on a bed of pulled pork.
What a way to start off. Lori took the first bite. Something wonderful was happening to her (it was the pork roll) and, after we convinced her that if she kept walking towards the light she wouldn’t be able to have anymore, she collected herself and said it was fantastic. Bill and I quickly tasted and concurred with her review. The pulled pork was quite a surprise since you can’t see it with the pile up of goodness covering it, but this offering stood out in the seemingly endless ocean of pork roll, egg and cheese variations represented.
We looked around for the next pork purveyor, listening for the sizzle of pork roll calling the masses. Festival stalwart, Killarney’s Publick House, showed some real ingenuity again this year. Honestly, I was hoping that they would resurrect their Trenton Funnel Cake they showed off last year (check last year’s The Taste Chase Pork Roll Festival review for a picture). Although there was no funnel cake this year, Jack Manousos and the gang brought back the ever popular Trenton Burger (hamburger, cheese,pork roll and sauce) and introduced a savory bite of Eastern Asia/Pacific Islands. Their “Po-Mi” slider was consisted of two meatballs made of pork roll and spices, fried crispy on a bed of lettuce and topped with tomatoes and an original sauce. The way people were ordering them, I’d say they were a hit. We saw pork roll and cheese crepes, pork roll and kimchee, and, just like last year, the sushi guys at Trenton Social made pork roll sushi.
Dennis McDonough and the Jung Wombats, provided the soundtrack to our backlot pork wanderings, singing covers of classic pop and rock music while Lori, Bill and I perused the table of pork and pig themed items. With a jazz group playing some great fusion tunes, we made the final rounds at Trenton Social, heading towards one last vendor. Chef Chris, who is a personal chef, offered up his contribution to the festival: a medium sized bowl filled with mashed potatoes, dotted with pork roll bits and topped with chives, cheddar cheese and sour cream…sort of like a stuffed baked potato except without the skin.
By now the sun was bearing down on us and temperatures were over 90 degrees, but there was still more hog to drool over at the second site of the festival at Mill Hill Park, so the “Taste Buds” and I made just enough haste to keep my Crocs from melting on the pavement. We crossed the bridge into the park and into a teeming multitude, like a scene from a Persian street bazaar in some epic tale told by Scheherazade herself. Their food offerings were more numerous than at “The Social”, so Lori, Bill and I went off to taste what we could taste. After getting his bearings, Bill came back with a sandwich that was not quite pork roll but in the same vein. What I thought was sweat was actually drool making its way from Bill’s mouth as a bacon wrapped sausage sandwich met a deliciously grisly end beneath his bicuspids.
We meandered between the fortune tellers and the vendors selling all manner of plastic toys and trinkets, toward the grassy knoll of porkdom. Basically, Mill Hill Park was off and poppin’ with some of the tried and true there from last year like the “WTF?” food truck guys, who were there doing a brisk business. This year their menu featured an around the world trip showcasing pork roll ladened sandwiches costumed in flavors from Italy to Germany to the Pacific Islands. A long line was stretching out before them when I heard that their American style sandwich was gone. There was a real festival atmosphere here with people dizzying themselves with hoola hoops and blowing bubbles and lots of laughing…it was beginning to feel like “Porkstock.” DeLorenzo’s pork roll pizzas were showing up in quite a few hands and we all thought that was probably a winning combination: two Trenton institution together at last. Kids with cotton candy and Italian ice passed by but we were determined not to stray from the pork roll themed items. “Undrgrnd Donuts” was there to offer a sweeter platform with which to display pork roll’s more playful side. Offerings like “The Homer” and “Morning Pork” were displayed for sale beneath the awning. We took one of each, splitting them between the three of us. First, “The Homer,” a vanilla and brown sugar icing covered maple donut crowned with pork roll bits. It was cakey and sweet with a strong and tasty maple flavor. “The Morning Pork” was similar but with powdered sugar and the pork roll bits deftly stuffed in the donut hole. Sitting on a wall on the north side of the park lined with pork patrons, we ate our donuts and surveyed the plates, forks and napkins of those around us. The gentleman next to me had a pork roll and grilled macaroni and cheese sandwich. That was probably one of the most original things I saw that day. I watched him deconstruct it and thought about how I would have approached that sandwich. Think Jaws.
The group “Instant Funk” was doing some serious justice to musical legends like Earth, Wind and Fire, and Maze featuring Frankie Beverly, to name a few.
The crowd was loving the groove as we saw many people dancing, sweating and chewing. We decided on one last savory morsel, so we made our way to 1911 Smokehouse BBQ. They really busy and their grill was sizzling. We placed our order: a BBQ brisket and pork roll sandwich with a side of banana pudding. After a slight mix-up about what sandwich we ordered, we grabbed our grub and headed back to the wall to savor the flavor. The brisket meat was fatty and juicy but, oddly, the whole sandwich was a bit on the dry side. We had asked about BBQ sauce but were told there was none. On the bottom of the sandwich there were 2 paper thin slices of pork roll. After much chewing, we decided that we did like this sandwich even though the brisket was the star of the show. By the time we licked the scant juices and grease off our fingers, we were joined by Scott DeKeine, another high school friend and his wife, Joyce, and Dawn Cook, an old friend of mine, for the 3rd Annual Pork Roll Festival debriefing.
After much debate, we declared this a worthwhile trip. We all want to support Trenton’s revitalization and the rebuilding of a community, and we all love pork roll or why else would we be outside sweating like hogs and eating hog like hogs? What stuck out to most of us was that pork roll seemed to be an afterthought for many of the vendors. Too many times it was either thrown on the top as a garnish or hidden at the bottom to be usurped by other ingredients. Last year, there seemed to be more innovation and many vendors tried hard to make pork roll the star we all know it is. It’s a featured player in the breakfast of many from the Garden State, so why here did it seem that it was more of an ensemble player with a line or two here and there? I believe that pork roll can play — and play well — with a lot of other items in the pantry, fridge or garden and was disappointed that many seemed content to just do what they normally do and add a touch of pork roll.
One of the things I noticed was the lack of vendors at both venues. While Trenton Social seemed to have the same number of vendors, some of the more memorable ones were not there. The Empanada truck made some killer pork roll empanadas last year, so much so that I seem to remember that they ran out of ingredients. This year, they included a
VIP section (aka the Cool Kids Lounge) and so it seemed like there was lot more sitting and a lot less mingling. We did comment on the trinkets that were being sold at the Mill Hill Park location. Where were the artisans? I know that there are plenty of people in Trenton and the surrounding areas that make/create incredible jewelry, paintings, clothing, woodwork etc. The stuff I was seeing had my inner voice scolding me saying that I should have held on to my tickets from Chuck E. Cheese. Plastic blow up Sponge Bobs, plastic army men, plastic rings…get the theme here? There was plenty of room for everything but it seemed like between the fortune teller and the deck of cards, real Trenton flavor was trampled over by Oriental Trading Post merchandise running amuk. I missed the Miss Pork Roll pageant, if they had one this year, and I missed the best pork roll recipe contest they had the first year.
The music seems to have been a constant at both venues. Instant Funk was killin’ it at Mill Hill Park and back at Trenton Social, as the sun set, C&C Music Factory brought back mid-nineties R&B funk while the soulful, jazz soaked strains of “Social” regular Elisa Summiel lullabyed the masses as magenta lightly colored the night sky.
All in all, the Third Annual Pork Roll Festival was a success. I will go next year with hunger and hope in equal measure. If you have not gone before, you really are missing something that is truly Trenton. There is history, there is originality, there are people with hope for this city. Come be one of them. Come and invest a few dollars, a few moments, and an inch or two on your belt. The diverse crowds alone were encouraging and despite some of the deficits we saw, my “Taste Buds,” Lori and Bill, were glad we went. And, since there seems to be no chance of the two creators of the festival mending their fences and creating a massive joint effort, I can only hope that next year there will be a bit more magic to go with my pork roll, egg and cheese sandwich. Off to the gym. Yum it up. Tell all your friends.