The Taste Chase: The 5th Annual Trenton Pork Roll Festival, Hog Heaven or Pork Purgatory?

Memorial Day just passed. Can you guess where I was? Of course you can because you’ve read enough of The Taste Chase to understand my love of almost all pork products. So, as you should expect, I grabbed my “Taste Buds” and made my annual pilgrimage to the shrine of swine and all things porkly divine, The 5th Annual Trenton Pork Roll Festival.  (Shout out to my classmate Beth Beringer who has dreams of pork roll out in big sky country.)

Now, before I go on, this disclaimer: I did indeed go to the festival last year but was so disappointed I couldn’t bring myself to write about it. I was determined not to have this happen this year, so I employed a different approach to this year’s hickory smoked festivities – I set my sights a little lower. Onward.

It was a bit of a challenge to find some company for my haj this year but I finally wrangled some willing participants. Indulging with me this year, were Kimberly and Steve Janel, a couple of festival virgins who were seduced by their own tasty hog fantasies and my compelling sales pitch.

By the time we got to the Trenton Social, the site of the very first pork roll festival 5 years ago, the sun was high and so were the temperatures. After paying our $5 entrance fee (which hasn’t gone up since I started going) and traversing the throng just outside the entrance to the bar, we walked back to where the food trucks and vendors selling chachkies were stationed. The first thing that greeted us was Captain Pork Roll wielding the “meat of justice”. I’ll just leave that right there, which I did, while Kim and Steve took the tourist shot. I looked for some of the tried and true favorites that always support this festival and was glad to see them there and doing a brisk business.

Kim Janel with Killarney’s

Jack and Seamus of Killarney’s Publick House usually bring something really tasty and original to showcase. In the past, they’ve delivered such delicacies as, the “Trenton funnel cake,” which is the classic carnival favorite topped with red delicious apples, diced pork roll, drizzled with a Jameson Whiskey caramel sauce. That was one of my favorite encounters and, sadly, I’ve yet to see again. This year, they kept it simple but pleasantly wonderful by presenting the less complicated, pork roll fries, which were strips of porky goodness fried crispy and topped with a spicy sriracha cheese sauce. I looked around and Kim was already handing over her cash. She brought them over and we indulged. They were greasy and messy and oh-so-very-tasty, all the reasons why we love pork roll.

Dirty Sexy Sauces

Hopewell Valley Central High School alum, Don “Post” Leake ventured out of the guest chef line-up at Trenton Social and presented one of the most creative offerings of pork roll this year. Pork roll chorizo was something that never occured to me but was not surprising coming from Chef Post’s, whose culinary magic has dazzled the masses on his many stages, including resident executive chef at Sur La Table in Marlton, NJ. Hints of pimenton (Spanish smoked paprika), chilies, Jersey tomatoes amid other worldly, spices made this pork roll reincarnation stick out in my head. In addition to cheese, one could indulge themselves by adding a taste of Chef Post’s newest creation, his “Dirty Sexy Sauces” of which he offered free, but sparing tastes (we were in public after all), of any one of these four original hot sauces. Ingredients like grapefruit, Thai basil, habanero and lemongrass inhabit varying levels of heat in sauces like “First Kiss” and “Heavy Petting”.  Trust me, that list goes on.

Renee of Bacon Broads

Bacon Broads made their debut appearance this year. Even though her specialty was bacon, the owner Renee, gladly substituted pork roll for bacon. Harmony among swine products, we all could learn a little something here. There were quite a few folks walking around with the pork roll quesadillas trying to stretch out long tendrils of melted cheese before taking that first bite. Their loaded pork roll mac & cheese also seemed to be a hit as well with several people stopping by to study the menu items listed outside on the truck.

“This is our first time here,” stated Bacon Broads owner and cook Renee, whose biceps rival that of Rosie the riveter. (If you don’t believe me, google her). I first came across Bacon Broads this past April at the Bacon Festival at Laurita Winery in New Egypt and was glad to see them here in Trenton.

Steve was banished to the Johnny’s Pork Roll and Coffee truck, where the line always looks like judgement day. Their specialty was the tried and true Jersey icon, the pork roll, egg and cheese (PRE&C) on a roll. Though I hear their’s is great, honestly, you can get a good PRE&C anywhere (shout out to Lucky Deli), why not try something a bit more adventurous people!! Last year at the same truck, The Gingered Peach owner, Joanne Canady Brown, who was my taste bud opted for their newly popular, pork roll reuben, a swiny twist on the classic sandwich.

Pork Princess Robbie of The Pork Roll Store

Family-owned and operated for over 95 years, The Pork Roll Store in Allentown NJ, set up their booth with a plethora of all things pork roll related. There were tee-shirts, fluffy stuffed pigs and a guy, off to the side cooking up pork roll kabobs with pineapple and maraschino cherries. I hadn’t seen kabobs before at the festival and that was a tasty surprise.

Robbie, a former pork roll princess, proclaimed, “We were voted the number one pork roll on and we have four generations of pork roll makers in the family,” she continued, drawing my attention to some of those who were standing with her.  

Steve Janel and the pork roll kabob

As taste bud Steve, who had long abandoned the line at Johnny’s, eagerly devoured the kabobs which were slathered with some kind of sauce, Robbie shared, “We use pure spices. No fake stuff, no crap,” she stated proudly and loud enough to draw the attention of a few passers by. My acknowledging nod gave a quick answer to my question and a recipe to broaden my pork roll repertoire at home. “Hands down, my favorite is the Pork Roll, Egg and Cheese on a roll, made with our pork roll of course.” Duh. Clearly, there is a disturbance in the pork field as Taylor and Case, have an interloper disrupting their semi peaceful coexistence. “Here’s something you could try at home,” Robbie eagerly added. “Bake your pork roll in the oven with an orange glaze and top each one with a slice of pineapple and serve with mashed potatoes.” A tasty new twist on the spiral ham slice, I see.

Choocolate covered pork roll

As we turned to leave, The Pork Roll Store left us with one more goodie to try. The sweet section of their display, Gourmet Cottage, featured chocolate covered pork roll. As a fan of savory bacon covered in deep, dark chocolate, I wasn’t sure I could get on the love train with this one. The woman behind the table assured Kim and I that it was good, even as she was simultaneously packing up as the the rising temperature was melting the merchandise. A generous chunk of pork roll enrobed in dark chocolate was offered to us and we partook. Admittedly, the texture was something that I needed a minute with. Where bacon has a crunch and then the burst of flavor, the pork roll took three good chews to mingle nicely with the chocolate, and it did.

Things were beginning to heat up and we thought it was a great time to head over to the Mill Hill Park Pork Roll Festival but Kim wanted to give The Social one more quick go around before we headed over. Clearly, she had a better plan than I did, as I was finding myself growing tired of what seemed to be the same ole-same ole, she was full of wonder not wanting to miss anything. Ahhh…virgins.

I watched to see a band setting up to play and realize it was certainly time to head over to Mill Hill Park, I turned around to collect my “buds” only to see Kim chatting up some guy with an ice cream scoop. I had dismissed the Only in Jersey pop-up tent quite frankly, because there seemed to be nothing there that drew me in. Clearly, I was jaded from last year’s lackluster experience because I was sure Kim’s glee was over the top. She handed me a spoon.

“Maple syrup based ice cream with candied pork roll and pieces of French toast,” Kim informed me with ice cream making its way to the corners of her mouth.  

“Ambitious” was the first word that come to mind and maybe even a bit audacious. Pork roll is a notoriously challenging ingredient to work with, some saying it may even be a “one trick pony” at best. The artisans at Only In Jersey, set out to show some real ingenuity and creativity clearly, but did they? I think they did. Admittedly, the candied pork roll in ice cream gave me pause as I anticipated what I would encounter. The maple flavor was bold and overt and, although the French toast pieces and the pork roll pieces have similar texture initially, you could definitely tell them apart. The saltiness of the pork roll with its accompanying spices didn’t get lost in the coldness of the ice cream or succumb to its sugary cinnamon and maple flavors. Creative, original and the only one on the block, the Only in Jersey Pork Roll & French Toast ice cream was a winner.

With the sun bearing down on us, we quickly made our way to Mill Hill Park main entrance, paying the fee to the tee-shirt clad festival worker and hurriedly heading towards the food trucks dotting the perimeter. Along the way, we passed vendors hawking everything from LuLaroe and custom made friendship bracelets to Avon and handmade metal work. Some were pork roll specific but most weren’t. I saw hand carved signs proclaiming “For the love of pork roll” right next to someone who looked like they were selling all the items they ever won at Chuck E. Cheese. As we exited the “shopping area”, we walked out into the middle of the park where we could see all the food trucks that were present.

Real talk – there were not nearly as many food trucks as there had been in years past. The usual suspects were there, an old Trenton favorite, DeLorenzo’s, was cranking out their pork roll topped pizza. The Tater Tot truck was serving up everyone’s favorite alternative to fries, topped with chopped pork roll and Cheez Wiz.  Steve got us a boat of the tots and we downed them. The Little Sicilian Rice Balls truck was there advertising his famous Cheesesteak Rice Balls with some pork rolled themed offering just to the quell the ire of pork roll purists. Johnny’s Pork Roll and Coffee was doing double duty with a truck at this location as well. Bacon Crazy was slinging pork roll mac and cheese along with watermelon chunks

One of my favorite morsels was from the popular WTF food truck, who were offering their take on the popular meme celebrity, “Barbecue Becky”.  If you don’t know who she is, she famously called the police on a group of black friends BBQing in an Oakland California park, thusly entering the ranks of the infamous. Along with her back-breaking amount of unwanted press, my favorite food truck guys named a sandwich after her. The Barbecue Becky is a barbecued slice of pork roll, slathered in BBQ sauce and topped with coleslaw on a soft bun. We got that.

Smokehouse 1911 was there with their brisket sandwich that sported a disappointingly paper thin slice of pork roll, you wouldn’t have missed it if the pork roll was left off all together.  The beer garden was filling up and the band was singing out to a sparse crowd that was growing very slowly.

The sun was beating down on us more noticeably now.  Kim, Steve and I, took that as a sign to wipe our mouths and hang up our napkins for this year’s Trenton Pork Roll Festival. In my recent forays into the “hogland”, honestly, I’ve come away disappointed and a bit miffed.  But this year as I said earlier, I vowed to make sure that the only thing salty, was the pork roll. So, instead of looking for the best thing ever, I decided to aim just a little bit lower. In that, I realized that there really is a lot of good that is really good, just beneath great. From Only In Jersey’s Pork Roll & French Toast ice cream to the WTF truck’s “Barbecue Becky” sandwich to, my favorite, chef Post’s Pork Roll Chorizo with the dirty, sexy sauce of my choosing, I was having the best of the good. In the, end I got to spend some time in Trenton, hang out with some cool friends and eat a Trenton original. Perhaps that was the great I’d been missing all along.

The Trenton Pork Roll Festival happens every spring on Memorial Day weekend at two locations, The Trenton Social, 449 South Broad Street and Mill Hill Park, 165 East Front Street, both in Trenton. See you next year! Yum it up. Tell all your friends.

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Renata Barnes
Renata is the author of "The Taste Chase," MercerMe's own food review column. She's a lover of all things poetic, colorful, funny and inspiring. A native New Yorker, who grew up in Hopewell Valley and spent the better part of her adulthood back in NYC, currently finds herself in a growing love relationship with “the Valley”. Latin food, Indian saris and mehndi, French perfume, African music, Middle Eastern spices, South American jewels, Asian fabrics and anything from just about any island (maybe not Riker’s Island) are things that remind her to go out and taste the world, live passionately and always wear deodorant. The mother of one rambunctious boy and the wife of a mellow fellow, Renata tries to put her too many years of university and her film and writing talents to good use here in NJ. “I’ve spent too much time trying to fit in some where when I probably belong everywhere. That slow revelation has been freeing.”

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