Since George Washington really slept around, his billet in Trenton, N.J., is not all that noteworthy. But Trenton is famous for something else: pork roll. In 1856, Trenton’s own John Taylor developed Taylor Ham, which was later known as pork roll. But it would be another 158 years before the first Pork Roll Queen would be crowned.
And guess what—that 2014 queen was from Bayonne, as was the 2015 queen! What is it with Bayonne and pork roll?
Let’s start with a definition. It’s a “pork-based processed meat,” indigenous to New Jersey, often served with egg and cheese on a roll, sort of like an egg MacPorkRoll.
Hamming it Up
The Trenton Pork Roll Festival, which will be in its third year next summer, is a family-friendly event that includes live entertainment and lots of vendors serving up New Jersey’s favorite breakfast meat in imaginative new ways. Taylor Ham tacos, anyone?
It’s hard to top a festival that celebrates processed meats, but one that also crowns a queen is inviolable. The title comes with sash and tiara. In pursuit of the crown, contestants compete in a Q&A battle and participate in a talent show.
Maggie Kowalski, the first Pork Roll Queen, grew up in Bayonne. Her successor, the current queen, is Elisha Abdelaal, who grew up in South Jersey before moving to Bayonne seven years ago. Both are in their early twenties. The two met at CrossFit Bayonne.
Don’t be seduced by the platitude that physical fitness and unnatural breakfast meats don’t go hand in hand. Kowalski won the talent show with her mastery of pushups.
“We both work out in the wee hours of the morning,” says Abdelaal, who heard of the contest through Kowalski. “The day I learned Maggie was the Pork Roll Queen, I knew I had to compete. I grew up on pork roll, and the whole thing sounded like so much fun.”
She’s a pork roll aficionado.
“It’s salty like bacon, with a tang to it,” Abelaal enthuses. “It’s thinner than sausage, but thicker than lunch meat, and it has a great texture.”
Adds Kowalski, “I’ve described it before as Spam meets bacon. Cut in thick slices like Spam, crispy on the outside like bacon.”
“I think it’s so popular because it’s so intrinsically New Jersey,” Abelaal says. “It was created and is still produced in Trenton. It’s only available in this part of the country: New Jersey, Delaware, and parts of PA, which just adds to its awesomeness.”
“I’m like a pork roll ambassador,” she continues; she’s introduced it to friends and family all over the world: “I literally freeze two logs of pork roll to bring when I fly out to visit.”
Kowalski works for a financial services firm based in Boston. “My boss, who told me about the festival to begin with, is all the way in Massachusetts, so I bring it when I go,” she says. Her employer hosts a Pork Roll community page on Facebook in his spare time.
Pumping Pork Roll
The two queens developed their winning talents at the gym.
“I picked a random stranger out of the crowd and challenged him to a pushup contest,” Kowalski says of the talent that won her the crown. “People who have been day-drinking for eight hours want to see a small girl beat a big guy. This guy was at least 6’5. He was standing right in front of me when I asked for a volunteer. God wanted me to win that day.”
Abdelaal says, “My talent was definitely a crowd-pleaser. I did a one-handed handstand to the song ‘Highway to the Danger Zone.’ While in my handstand I picked up a pork roll sandwich and took a few bites.”
The royals hope that Bayonne will produce a third queen.
“If by ‘hope’ you mean ‘actively planning’,” Kowalski laughs. “We often try to talk girls and guys from our gym into applying to be 2016 Pork Roll Queen. We would love to see another feat of strength win the pageant.” Abdelaal says the pageant doesn’t discriminate when it comes to gender identity or anything else for that matter. It’s open to New Jersey residents over age 18 who love pork roll.
The queens encountered stiff competition both years. Kowalski and Abdelaal didn’t have beauty-queen backgrounds and found themselves up against women who held titles.
“One girl came with an entourage,” Kowalski says. “She had multiple dresses and the whole makeup caboodle. I had a makeup case this big.” She indicates a size smaller than the average pork roll sandwich. “I was like, one of us really misunderstood the assignment. I was in cutoff jean shorts and a T-shirt that I made. I saw the words ‘pork roll,’ and she saw the word ‘pageant.’”
Pork over Pageantry
“The crowd is half of your score,” Abdelaal says. Apparently, winning the audience over with a love of pork roll and unique talent holds more weight than polished pageantry.
As the reigning queen, Kowalski was a judge and wanted to emphasize muscles over makeup. She also had the honor of crowning the new queen.
“I knew Elisha so I disclosed that with the guys when they said they wanted me to judge as queen,” Kowalski says. “I wanted to put that out there. Elisha was very clearly the best and she definitely won when it comes to crowd noise, but I didn’t know who would be the winner when I got up there. I was standing there not knowing who they were going to call and when they said Elisha I was so happy!”
Abdelaal recalls, “I was waving like I was Miss America. At the festival I was like a celebrity. People were stopping me to take pictures.”
The Pork Roll Queens continue to enjoy celebrity status. They appeared at a promotional event for Dunkin’ Donuts and were on the Pork Roll & Eggs radio show on 107.1. Kowalski was even interviewed on NPR. Another royal duty is riding on a float in the Trenton Saint Patrick’s Day Parade.
“I get there and there’s a pork roll sandwich on the back of a pickup truck,” Kowalski recalls. “It was like Styrofoam or something. So I’m in the truck with the sandwich and a generator ’cause we were pumping music. It was the song ‘Pork Roll, Egg and Cheese’ by Ween, and they played that song on a loop for hours and I was getting high off of fumes from the generator.”
Abdelaal looks forward to participating in the March 2016 parade, two months before the next queen will be crowned.
“I’m excited for the parade, but I’m mostly excited for the festival next year,” Abdelaal says. “Last year was so fun, but I was so nervous. I got this big sandwich and was like, ‘I can’t eat this, I’m too nervous.’ You don’t want to drink too much because you have to go perform, and the whole handstand thing.”
The queens say the fest is not really a royal experience.
“It’s just chill, no frills with good live entertainment,” Abdelaal says.
“It’s a good alternative for people on Memorial Day weekend,” Kowalski adds.
“I think it’s just going to get bigger and bigger each year,” Abdelaal says. “I can’t wait for five years down the road when we have a real alumni association. When I judge I want to look for girls with a good personality that Maggie and I would hang out with and brainstorm pork roll ideas.”—BLP