One of my clients, a large retail corporation, occasionally gives me assignments to develop recipes for a mainstream American audience. I love working with the company, but I sometimes feel conflicted about developing recipes for an “Asian steak bowl” or a “Mexican mac n’ cheese.” The steak bowl is Asian because it features rice and a soy sauce marinade. The mac n’ cheese is Mexican because it has corn, cumin, and chili powder.
As a Caucasian mutt, I don’t have one specific cuisine tied into my identity and family tradition, and so I never felt how potent the sting of an outsider swooping down and cherry-picking ingredients and techniques can be. Until it came to pepperoni rolls.
If you’re from the Mid-Ohio Valley, pepperoni rolls likely need no explanation. They simply are, an unquestioned presence as commonplace as Golden Delicious apples and cartons of 2% milk. But let’s pretend you are extolling the virtues of a pepperoni roll to someone who’s never had the pleasure of eating one. “It’s fluffy white bread baked with pepperoni inside. Sometimes sticks, sometimes slices. A few places even use ground pepperoni. Some include cheese. You get them at gas stations, or bakeries, or make your own with Rhodes frozen bread dough. Clearly we need to get you one right now.”
There is nothing not to love about pepperoni rolls, unless you are an avid fan of nutrition, because as wads of cottony white bread stuffed with greasy, salty cured meat, there is nothing beneficial about them in that aspect. The ones I grew up with were from Brownie’s Bakery in Marietta. The Brownie’s pepperoni rolls featured two pencil-thin sticks of pepperoni (the lunchmeat version of a chocolate baton in a pain au chocolat) encased in a cottony roll. One made an ideal snack; two, a satisfying lunch. Brownie’s Bakery is long gone, but Brownie still bakes pepperoni rolls to sell at a few places around town. People would seriously freak out if he stopped.
As a kid in Ohio, I didn’t know pepperoni rolls were so deeply West Virginian. According to Candace Nelson, the Charleston, WV-based author of The West Virginia Pepperoni Roll, they originated with the Italian immigrants who came to the north central part of the state to work as coal miners. Perhaps the first rolls were baked in home kitchens so men could have a filling and portable lunch down in the mines. But it’s Italian-American baker and former miner Giuseppe “Joseph” Argiro who is credited with introducing a commercial version in his Fairmont, WV bakery.
Only after moving away from the Mid-Ohio Valley did I learn the regionality of pepperoni rolls—specifically, I would have liked to eat them, but there were not to be had. You don’t have to go far to land where pepperoni rolls are not a thing. I left it by heading to Columbus, just two hours north, and over the years I kept moving farther.
Only in going away and then returning did I fully grasp the intricacies of the Mid-Ohio Valley identity. It’s more Appalachian than Midwestern, though in many ways it’s simultaneously both things and neither of them. I call it the Appalachian Interzone. My parents, both native Ohioans, moved to Marietta nearly 40 years ago, and many people in town still consider them outsiders. “Bir?” they’ll say when I answer inquiries about my last name. “Hmm, I don’t know any Birs.” While I find this scrutiny amusing, I see its usefulness; it’s a simple attempt to tease out connections, create a community context. “Who are your parents?” is not a big-city question, but a small-town one.
As I compiled my cookbook, Tasting Ohio: Favorite Recipes from the Buckeye State, I collected recipes from chefs and food producers all over Ohio. Pepperoni rolls initially didn’t seem a good fit, because they are the official state food of West Virginia (I say this literally, not figuratively—the state legislature passed the resolution marking it such in 2013), and Tasting Ohio is an Ohio cookbook. Yet I grew up in Ohio, eating pepperoni rolls. Ohioans up and down the Ohio River Valley did, too. Who was I to deny the Appalachian Interzone a voice in Tasting Ohio?
I gave in. The rolls are in the book. Since no one needs a recipe for the insanely simple Rhodes dough version, I opted to start with homemade dough, and sniffed around for source recipes to compare. That is when I came across a pepperoni roll recipe in Cook’s Country, the less austere sister publication of the Brookline, Massachusetts-based Cook’s Illustrated.
The Cook’s Country pepperoni rolls had sesame seeds on top, which instantly tipped me off. They could not be the real deal! Never have I seen pepperoni rolls with sesame seeds on top. Who did those Massholes think they were, plucking one of West Virginia’s fine traditions and mucking it up to suit their elitist tastes?
It was my turn to be on the receiving end of Asian Steak Bowl fury. It riled me up enough that I didn’t read the Cook’s Country recipe, or the accompanying short article setting it up, so I can’t go point my finger at them and cry “Columbusing!” That, by the way, is a newish term for appropriating an aspect of one culture and acting as if you discovered it.
West Virginia is rich with folklore, extremely fertile in all aspects of the arts, and home to its own legitimate foodways. Every time something good about West Virginia sneaks into the national consciousness, I want to give the state a fist-bump.
West Virginia, and Appalachia in general, is chronically misunderstood by many people in our country. It’s thought of as white trash, politically backwards, culturally bereft, and appallingly unsophisticated. West Virginia is rich with folklore, extremely fertile in all aspects of the arts, and home to its own legitimate foodways. Every time something good about West Virginia sneaks into the national consciousness, I want to give the state a fist-bump.
But, just as the natural resources of the state has been mined by greedy outside interests for its fossil fuels, so too have its food traditions been mined by superficial foodies who, say, want the cachet of ramps without understanding anything about the cultural meaning the plant has to rural mountain folk. I want pepperoni-loving people everywhere to be embrace pepperoni rolls, but I also want them to understand that they are a salt-of-the-earth delicacy, the street food of the coal mines. To render them foufy with sesame seeds is missing the point.
In my pepperoni rolls for Tasting Ohio, I use the fancy deli pepperoni slices, not the so-so Hormel stuff. Though I once preferred sticks, I am now a convert to slices, because they are better distributed in the roll and thereby leech more of the flavorful, bright orange grease into the bready interior. It’s a déclassé version of brioche, almost. I love brioche.
I add honey and full-fat buttermilk to my dough, and brush the proofing rolls with melted butter. None of those things are standard issue in a typical pepperoni roll, but I feel I can get away with it, because I’m from here. Does it all come down to birthright?
Writer and Vietnamese cooking expert Andrea Nguyen has cannily observed that appropriation is taking, while collaboration is giving. Giving credit, giving context, giving goodwill. Being mindful that a recipe is never just a recipe, and a seemingly innocuous white bread roll stuffed with pizza toppings is never just a roll. Is it okay to fling sesame seeds over them if you don’t have roots in the Mountain State? Is it Columbusing to include them in Tasting Ohio when you’re a fringe element in the Appalachian Interzone? Is it justifiable to look Cook’s Country in the eye and ask, “Who are your parents?”
I can’t give hard and fast answers to any of those questions. What’s more important is to not stop asking them. One thing I can give is a recipe.
Excerpted from Tasting Ohio: Favorite Recipes from the Buckeye State (Farcountry Press, 2018)
They may be the official state snack food of West Virginia, but you’ll find pepperoni rolls all along Ohio’s southeast and northeast regions. They hit the spot wherever you happen to be.
- 1/4 cup warm water
- 1 scant tablespoon active dry yeast (one .25 ounce package)
- 3 -1/4 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon table salt
- 4 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
- 2 tablespoons honey
- 3/4 cup buttermilk
- 1 large egg
- 8 to 9 ounces thinly sliced pepperoni
Makes 12 rolls
Place the warm water in a small bowl and sprinkle the yeast over it. Let it sit until dissolved and creamy, about 5 minutes.
Meanwhile, in the bowl of an electric stand mixer fitted with the dough hook, combine 3 cups of the flour with the salt.
In a small saucepan, melt 2 tablespoons of the butter over medium-low heat. Whisk in the honey and buttermilk and heat just until warm to the touch (do not boil). Remove from heat and beat in the egg.
Add the water and yeast mixture to the flour, along with the buttermilk mixture. Mix on low speed until the dough just comes together. If it’s quite sticky, add the remaining 1/4 cup flour. Mix on low speed for 5 minutes, then remove the dough from the mixer and knead by hand for a minute or so, until the dough is smooth and supple. Place in a greased bowl, cover, and let rise in a warm place until doubled in bulk, 1 to 2 hours.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and position racks in the upper and lower thirds. Divide the dough into 12 equal pieces and let rest on a lightly floured board for 10 minutes.
Line two baking sheets with parchment. Melt the remaining 2 tablespoons butter.
Take one piece of dough and form into a square roughly 4 to 5 inches across (imperfection is totally acceptable here, and in fact slightly preferable). Shingle 9 slices of pepperoni over the square, leaving a border of about 1/4 inch. Roll up and pinch the seam lightly to seal. Place seam-side-down on the baking sheet. Repeat with remaining dough, setting 6 rolls per sheet.
Brush the rolls with half of the melted butter and let rise 30 minutes (the rolls will not puff up visibly). Bake until lightly browned, 30 to 40 minutes, rotating the sheets from top to bottom and back to front halfway through baking. Immediately brush with the remaining butter. Serve warm or at room temperature.