It’s barely 6 a.m, I’ve been in West Virginia for less than ten minutes, and I’m already sprinting across the parking lot of the first Sheetz I could see from the interstate. I push through the front door, and immediately see my all-time favorite food neatly stacked in a three-tier wire rack at the counter, like the gas station staffers somehow knew that I’d be stopping in.
I have the diet of a teenage runaway, so the fact that I’m excited to eat at a gas station isn’t exactly surprising. But now that I live out of state, I don’t get to have pepperoni rolls every morning and, on this 20-degree Tuesday, the combination of soft, yeasty bread and the sharp spices of the pepperoni is extra satisfying. And, as always, it tastes like home.
The humble pepperoni roll is West Virginia’s contribution to American cuisine, although if you haven’t spent time in the state – or haven’t spent more than 15 minutes with a West Virginian – then you might not have heard of it. “Whenever you try to explain it to someone from out of state, they try to associate it with something they’re familiar with,” Candace Nelson, the author of The West Virginia Pepperoni Roll said. “The stromboli or the calzone might be cousins to the pepperoni roll, but the pepperoni roll is unique because of its strong ties to our culture, and because of its simplicity.”
West Virginia’s unofficial state food couldn’t be more unfussy: it’s bread and either sticks or slices of pepperoni, the superior shelf-stable meat. It is utilitarian by design, because it was created to be a portable lunch for coal miners, something that they could eat with one hand while they wielded a pickaxe with the other. “It was likely the wife of a coal miner in a home kitchen that created the first pepperoni roll, [who] decided to combine a stick of pepperoni and a piece of dough sometime between 1927 and 1938,” Nelson said. “Because of the huge Italian population in north-central West Virginia, it kind of caught on.”
Although Nelson attributes its invention to a coal miner’s wife, other West Virginia historians credit Giuseppe Argiro, an immigrant from Calabria, Italy who worked in the mines near Clarksburg. He took his first job underground in the early 1920s, at a time when there were more Italian immigrants working in West Virginia’s coal industry than any other nationality. (Due in part to the state’s thriving coal mines, by 1910, Italians made up more than 30% of the state’s foreign-born population; until WWII, the Italian government even had an office of the consulate in northern West Virginia).
“The great majority of Italian immigrants were employed in the coal industry as pick-and-shovel miners,” the West Virginia Encyclopedia says. “In part, the Italians achieved real economic progress and acceptance by the sheer dint of hard labor. The records for coal production by hand tools are all apparently held by Italians.”
Argiro was one of those hard-working Italians, and he saw his countrymen carrying pepperoni-and-bread sandwiches into the mines to eat for lunch. It was simple enough to carry in a uniform pocket and didn’t require refrigeration – but it still had to be eaten with both hands. Argiro retired from the mines, moved to nearby Fairmont and opened the People’s Bakery (now known as Country Club Bakery) in 1927. At some point, he started experimenting with baking pepperoni inside those bread rolls. According to the WV history buffs at Goldenseal, he tested his first batches at beer halls where miners went after they clocked out, and they were an immediate success.
“Argiro is the one who got the credit. There are a few other Italian bakeries in the area who could’ve come up with a similar concept around the same time,” Nelson explained. “The other bakery that has kind of contested it a little bit is Tomaro’s Bakery, which is West Virginia’s oldest Italian bakery. The Italian-American community was very close-knit. The families were friends, they talked and nobody really wrote this stuff down, so it’s hard to pinpoint who may have sold the very first one. Tomaro’s has kind of conceded the title of birthplace of the pepperoni roll to Country Club Bakery.”
Regardless of who invented it or where they invented it, its continued connection to the state is indisputable. Both bakeries are still must-visit destinations for their fresh-baked rolls – and both of them will ship to homesick Mountaineers – but you can have pepperoni rolls at bakeries, restaurants, convenience stores and gas stations scattered through all 55 counties. (And last spring, 10Best Readers voted the Donut Shop in Buckhannon as having the best pepperoni rolls in the state).
“Depending on where you’re from, you’ll usually fight to the death on which one is the best,” Nelson said, laughing. “You’ll get into these very heated debates because, as a state, we love the pepperoni roll, but we all have our preference for which is the best. We’ll pledge allegiance to that local bakery and how they’ve always done it.”
I asked her, as someone who literally wrote the book on pepperoni rolls, which is her favorite?
“I love all pepperoni rolls equally,” she said diplomatically. “I think there is a pepperoni roll for every occasion.”
As I idled in a frigid gas station parking lot, comforted by the familiarity of every bite, I agreed completely.