Sunday, April 29, 2018

Explore Parts Unknown: Pepperoni Roll: The Taste of Mountaineer Pride

This was recently published as a supplemental piece to Anthony Bourdain's upcoming episode based in West Virginia. It airs tonight at 9 p.m.

Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown - Explore Parts Unknown: Pepperoni Roll: The Taste of Mountaineer Pride

In West Virginia it’s been said that coal mining is more than a job—it’s a religion. And if the coalfields are church, then the pepperoni roll—a soft roll filled with sticks or slices of pepperoni—is the Holy Bible.

This iconic food’s roots in West Virginia run as deep as its bituminous coal mines, perhaps because the two developed in tandem. In the early years of the 20th century, thousands of Italian immigrants moved to north central West Virginia to mine coal. The industry was rapidly expanding, as West Virginia helped power the growing nation; and many men from Calabria, Italy, saw the land of opportunity as a change from their depressed sulfur-mining industry.

They worked long, hard 10-hour shifts, six days a week. The only break in the day was often the lunch hour. A coal miner’s bucket often reflected the cuisine of his heritage: Germans ate pork, Irish brought white bread, and Italians ate a stick of pepperoni or salami and a roll.

It’s likely that the very first pepperoni rolls were lovingly crafted in the kitchens of coal miners’ wives, somewhere in West Virginia or even southwestern Pennsylvania, in an effort to provide a tasty lunch for the men toiling underground. But it’s Giuseppe “Joseph” Argiro, a coal miner turned baker, who is most commonly credited with commercializing West Virginia’s pepperoni roll.

Argiro emigrated from Calabria in 1920 to work in the Clarksburg-area mines. After laboring underground for years, he left the mines to open an Italian bakery in Fairmont, West Virginia: the People’s Bakery. There he churned out hearty Italian bread and other staples evocative of his home country.

Sometime between 1927 and 1938, Argiro drew inspiration from his days as a miner and combined the typical Italian lunch—a slab of bread and a chunk of pepperoni—into one convenient, shelf-stable portable meal: the pepperoni roll. This 5-inch-long delicacy involves taking a piece of dough and folding it over two freshly cut sticks of pepperoni, then folding it back over an additional stick or two. In the oven the spices and oils from the pepperoni blend beautifully into the soft dough to create an incredible snack that is much more than the sum of its parts.

The pepperoni roll, which sold for 45 cents a dozen, has become a cultural icon. Steeped in heritage and dedicated to an industry on which the state was built, it has evolved into a culinary symbol of pride, integrated into every facet of West Virginia life. Over time the salty snack spread from border to border, reaching the steel mills of the Northern Panhandle, D.C. vacationers in the Eastern Panhandle, and the southern coalfields—where ATV riders pack them for a long day on the trails—as well as all points in between.

Today Argiro’s original pepperoni rolls live on at the storefront now named Country Club Bakery, which churns out 300 to 400 dozen per day. But many more bakeries have developed their own unique versions of the humble miner’s lunch.

Tomaro’s Bakery, in Clarksburg, is the oldest Italian bakery in the state. In a line that runs around the block, Tomaro’s customers wait for hot pepperoni rolls straight from the oven. Just across town is D’Annunzio’s Italian Bakery, dividing the city in a friendly debate over which shop dishes the best roll. Subtle differences distinguish the bakeries’ rolls from one another, but they are all under the traditional umbrella: originally baked with a harder Italian bread and sticks of freshly cut pepperoni.

Then there’s Abruzzino’s Italian Bakery, which introduced a softer white bread that all bakeries soon adopted. And then Chico Bakery, which added provolone and hot pepper cheese. Following Chico was Home Industry Bakery, which switched from stick pepperoni to sliced pepperoni to get that spicy, savory meat in each bite.

Colasessano’s, meanwhile, calls its pepperoni roll a “pepperoni bun.” The burrito-size roll is split down the middle and topped with chili sauce, cheese, or peppers if you want them.

Not enough options? There’s also Rogers and Mazza’s, which produces bags of mini pepperoni rolls stuffed with cheese that are perfect for snacking. Other bakers have even added ramps (a garlicky wild onion), used ground pepperoni, or made molecular-gastronomy versions.

Each derivation has its loyalists. Traditionalists prefer stick pepperoni, claiming that sliced pepperoni is lower in quality. Purists turn their noses up at the addition of cheese. Incorporating peppers or sauce draws ire from those who think it turns the pepperoni roll into a calzone or stromboli.

Many of the original reasons for the pepperoni roll’s popularity persist today. Because it requires no refrigeration, the pepperoni roll was and is great for lunchboxes. Today it’s perfect for road trips. Because it is portable, the pepperoni roll is an easy lunch when you’re working underground. But it’s also great for hiking. Because it is filling, the pepperoni roll could hold miners over until dinner. But now it’s great tailgating food on game days.

Pepperoni rolls have made the leap from Italian bakeries to snack bars, grocery stores, convenience stores, gas stations, sporting venues, high-end restaurants, doughnut shops, catering menus, cafeterias, military meals ready to eat (MREs), and more. The list continues to grow as the pepperoni roll, like America, continues to evolve.

Yet it remains woven into the fabric of West Virginia. Every bit as much as New Yorkers love their bagels and Philadelphians love their cheesesteaks, West Virginians are connected to the pepperoni roll—extracted from the soul of the mountains, it lives on in the hearts of the people.