New York City and Chicago have their pizza. Philadelphia has its cheesesteaks. And Boston has its cream pie.
Moving into Appalachia, the Carolinas have their respective versions of BBQ. And you'll find yourself in hot chicken territory in Nashville, Tennessee.
But one Appalachian state has a regional food that is a bit more underground—literally.
West Virginia's pepperoni roll, a soft bun enveloping slices or sticks of pepperoni and baked golden brown, is found in every corner of the Mountain State.
The pepperoni roll, which can also include cheese, peppers, or sauce, draws on the coal mining heritage of the state. Not only was it created by the coal mining community, but it also continues to be consumed by coal miners.
When coal miners - many of them of Italian heritage - were lowered hundreds of feet underground, they would often fill their lunch buckets with bread, sticks of salami, and water to sustain them during their long shifts.
Sometime between 1927 and 1938, baker Giuseppe Argiro, who emigrated from Calabria, Italy, to work in the coal mines, thought to combine the two foods into one delicious snack after drawing on his previous experience underground. The pepperoni roll transformed the lunch experience by offering a portable, handheld lunch, allowing miners to eat with one hand, drink water with the other, and return to work quickly.
Today, Argirgo is most commonly credited with commercializing the pepperoni. However, coal miners' wives likely crafted the very first pepperoni rolls in their home kitchens—years and years before commercial kitchens began selling them.
The original pepperoni rolls were created from a harder Italian bread and hand-cut pepperoni strips from giant blocks. Over time, the pepperoni roll evolved to include a softer white bread dough and various forms of pepperoni, like slices, ground, or a mixture of the two. Then, cheese was added to the roll. The most common types are American, mozzarella, and hot pepper cheese.
Many additional versions of the pepperoni roll exist - from adding ramps, a garlicky onion that grows wild in the spring, and peppers to the sauce. There's also chili, marinara, jalapeños, banana peppers, mushrooms, olives, and more. For vegetarians, there are pepperoni rolls made with a plant-based meat substitute. Vegans can opt for that same plant-based meat substitute and opt for a nut cheese, as well. And for the gluten-free, select bakeries offer a pepperoni roll made with a gluten-free roll.
Not only does the pepperoni roll vary in ingredients, but it can also come in various sizes. The most common is the snack size, which is about five to six inches long. However, there are bite-size pepperoni rolls often served as appetizers. And there are large pepperoni rolls that are split down the middle, covered in toppings, and baked once again, fit for an entire meal.
They can be found everywhere, from bakeries and grocery stores to convenience stores and gas stations - and everywhere in between. They are at tailgates for college football games and hors d'oeuvres at weddings. They are a must-have for hiking trips and a go-to for road trips.
Many of the reasons the pepperoni roll rose to popularity in the mining community are the same reasons it continues to be a cultural touchstone today. Because it is portable and shelf stable, the pepperoni roll has found itself in all locations and all events. There are even celebrations created in its honor.
Fairmont, West Virginia, the birthplace of the pepperoni roll, hosts the Three Rivers Festival every Memorial Day weekend. During the three-day event, there are pepperoni roll bake-offs, a pepperoni roll eating contest, and more.
In Mannington, West Virginia, the community rings in the new year with a pepperoni roll drop at midnight. This particular pepperoni roll isn't edible; it is crafted from plastic, paint, and over 100 feet of LED lights.
Because of the pepperoni roll's place in Appalachian culture and its impact on the communities within West Virginia, the local legislature has even introduced bills recognizing it as the state's official food. While those have not yet passed, the pepperoni remains West Virginia's unofficial state food, beloved by those near and far. But, try one for yourself the next time you find yourself within the borders of West Virginia and enjoy not just a tasty snack but also a piece of the state's history.
*Note: Candace Nelson is the author of "The West Virginia Pepperoni Roll," a book documenting the history and impact of the regional food of the Mountain State, published by West Virginia University Press. Learn more at https://wvupressonline.com/node/667.