CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) - Few foods, if any, tell the story of Appalachia the way the pepperoni roll does.
Italian immigrants invented the beloved snack because it could be easily eaten underground in coal mines. Eventually, it made its way into bakeries, bread companies, restaurants and event venues around the state.
“The cool thing about the pepperoni roll is that it has roots similar to our state’s in that they both have coal-mining backgrounds,” said Candace Nelson, author of “The West Virginia Pepperoni Roll,” a new book to be officially released Thursday.
After signing a contract for the book in February 2015 with West Virginia University Press, Nelson spent a year traveling the state to learn about the pepperoni roll’s deep Appalachian roots.
“The best kind of research is pepperoni roll research, because everybody wants to feed you,” Nelson said.
However, she explained, getting to the bottom of exactly where the pepperoni roll originated was a difficult task.
Country Club Bakery in Fairmont is often credited with commercializing the pepperoni roll, though Tomaro’s bakery in Clarksburg has a stake in the claim, too.
“There’s little bit of back-and-forth about who necessarily created it, but in reality, it was likely the wives of coal miners in home kitchens,” Nelson said.
While traveling the state and writing her book, Nelson tasted and learned to make several variations of the snack food.
“People get very passionate about what kind of pepperoni roll they prefer, whether it’s stick pepperoni or slice pepperoni,” Nelson said. “There’s The Donut Shop in Buckhannon, which is a super crowd favorite, and they have ground pepperoni in their pepperoni roll, which adds a whole new argument to the sticks versus slices.”
While visiting Abruzzino Italian Bakery in Gypsy, West Virginia, Nelson learned the taste wasn’t all about sticks and slices. Locals measure the quality by how much the oils and spices have seeped through the bread to give it the most flavor.
“It’s pretty simple. The bread, the pepperoni, together, but there’s something unique and special that happens when it bakes and the oils and the spices absorb into the bread,” Nelson explained. “That’s a big part of why people love the pepperoni roll. It’s not just the two elements together. It’s like, when they bake together it creates a whole new experience.”
Nelson also traveled to Starling’s on Charleston’s East End to try its vegetarian version of the pepperoni roll. A section of her book includes information for people with dietary restrictions.
She will visit Taylor Books at 6 p.m. on June 15 to discuss and sign her book, which includes more than 100 pictures and a variety of recipes. It tells stories of immigrants, business owners, laborers and citizens who developed and enjoyed the snack food since its invention.
Nelson first became interested in the story of the pepperoni roll while she was a writer for the Charleston Daily Mail.
She was reporting on a legislative effort to make the pepperoni roll the official state food. While the bill did not pass, her articles garnered attention.
Nelson is the Candace behind the blog CandaceLately.com, which focuses on the food culture in West Virginia. She also writes for the Gazette-Mail’s Culinary Team.
“Really, I just wanted to help tell a piece of West Virginia’s story, and I think with Appalachian food becoming kind of trendy these days, it’s really important that we reclaim that narrative - I think it’s important that we take ownership of the pepperoni roll,” she said.
“While it may seem small, I think it’s crucial to show that we are creators here and we are innovators and we can take something that is so simple and make it something incredible.”
The book can be purchased at various bookstores across the state, including Taylor Books in Charleston, as well as Amazon.com and BarnesAndNoble.com.
Information from: The Charleston Gazette-Mail, https://wvgazettemail.com.
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