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ESSAY: Pepperoni Rolls

Almost Heaven:

A West Virginia Tradition

pepperoni roll southern food

To make a perfect pepperoni roll it all comes down to the seam on the underside of the dough. But I’m betting that unless you’re from West Virginia, like me, you’ve probably never even heard of a pepperoni roll—layers of salty pepperoni, and sometimes cheese, baked snugly inside pillows of soft, buttery bread dough. They are not calzones. And with a lousy bottom seam, you’ll be courting disaster, West Virginian-style. Too loose and the roll loses its shape, the contents exploding out and on to your oven floor. Too tight and you get compacted rolls the texture of Styrofoam that prevent the pepperoni grease from seeping out gently and enriching the dough. 

Just like so many regional heritage foods in this country, pepperoni rolls have the wonderful ability to unite strangers and divide neighbors within a single bite. Who makes the best version? With or without cheese? Pepperoni: sliced, diced, or in stick form? Any additional specs are most certainly a matter of personal taste or whimsy. But for the record, I’m an extra-cheese, sliced-pepperoni girl, all the way. 

In truth, limiting pepperoni rolls to that brief definition is a disservice, a half-story when only the whole roll will do. They’re practically the official state dish, a source of great pride, and West Virginia’s best kept secret. 

Pepperoni rolls are more than just a list of ingredients. They’re a link to my heritage, to my deep abiding affection for a place, and to the people, good and bad, of a past life. They are the greasy footprints that follow me across state lines, forever connecting where I come from to wherever I happen to be.

Some say pepperoni rolls were invented in the first half of the twentieth century by immigrant Italian coal miners in search of a lunch that married portability with flavors of home, while others, like Bob Heffner on his “Pepperoni Roll Homepage,” say that a bakery in the northern reaches of West Virginia deserves the credit. And still others say they were homegrown in the family kitchens of West Virginia. Honestly, I doubt anyone knows for sure where the rights meet the wrongs, or when fact gives way to lore, but here’s what I know to be true:

I love the way the grease from the pepperoni seeps into the dough turning the ends traffic-cone orange, and that on pepperoni-roll day at Mercer Elementary School I had to get in line early because kids and teachers alike often snaked the length of the hallway. I used to smell those rolls baking all morning, the aroma wafting up the stairs like a siren song to where I sat in Mrs. Seaver’s second-grade class, scribbling my first stories in a composition book stained with crayon wax.

Taste and good looks aside, I love that they exist within the same state lines where my ancestor Richard Hill is storied to have been one of the first pioneers in Pocahontas County in the mid-1700s. And about 150 miles southwest of Pocahontas sits Welch, where a few generations later my Granddaddy Dick and Grandma Wheat began their married life together in the 1950s thanks to a job with General Motors.

I didn’t know either of my maternal grandparents all that well. To know my mom’s people, I rely mostly on family recipes jotted down in Grandma Wheat’s faded handwriting and the stories that accompany empty wine bottles at holiday tables. Like the one my mom told me that her mom told her. That Welch was the kind of mining town where the coal dust collected everywhere, even on the handles of car doors. And if you weren’t mindful when you got in your car, it would turn your clean white church gloves soot black.

In the West Virginia of my memory, pepperoni rolls line the shelves of every back road mini-mart and gas station, stacked on racks next to the register, maybe in the shadow of Seneca Rocks or along the winding stretches of US-460. I’m betting I can still find them in places where I once heard a cashier say in parting, “Take it easy.” And a customer respond, “I’ll take it any way I can, but easy’s best.”

pepperoni roll southern food

And if I were to get there just after a certain hour in the morning, I would find the pepperoni rolls fresh from the neighborhood bakery and still warm to the touch, little beads of condensation forming on the plastic bag’s insides. As a girl, I often poked gently at their soft middles, leaving a map of finger indents in convenience stores across the state on family road trips.  

But my memories of West Virginia (and those pepperoni rolls) end right around the time I turn nine years old, when my dad filed for divorce and left to start a new life with his new family in North Carolina. And if his departure and my family’s upheaval seem rather sudden to you in the telling of this pepperoni roll story, than I truly apologize. But in the eyes of a little girl, it happened just like that.

I imagine biting into my first pepperoni roll as a girl was probably a shocking moment. My naïve eyes may have seen only a smooth, buttery roll, but at first bite, would have discovered a surprisingly spicy and salty interior. My dad was always a lot like that; neat-looking and polished on the outside, but stuffed tightly with pungent layers that could explode when heated. I blame bad seams. 

Not long after he left, my mom moved my sister and me from Princeton, the southern West Virginia town where we lived, to Virginia for a fresh start. Ash and I desperately wanted to stay, but Mom said she saw the ghost of my dad on every corner; maybe on the steps of the library, or outside the Sunday-school classrooms at church, or even on the diving board at Boulder Park pool. I guess sometimes roots can go so deep that they start to feel like shackles.

I was twenty-four years old before I taught myself how to make pepperoni rolls in the rusty oven of my first Washington, D.C. apartment. I’d barely thought of them since leaving West Virginia all those years ago. Sure, the rolls would appear at the occasional football tailgate or I’d spot them sitting complacently next to cash registers on trips to visit my aunt and uncle, but I’d offer only a passing nod as if running into an old acquaintance whose name you couldn’t recall.

Then suddenly, in the months before my wedding and just after my heartbreaking decision to cut off all contact with my dad, I was struck with a desperate craving for pepperoni rolls. And in the absence of a West Virginia mini-mart or the Mercer Elementary cafeteria ladies, I had to make them myself.

Some say cravings are a sign that your body is deficient in something. Perhaps I hungered for the idealistic view of that wide-eyed little girl eating her first pepperoni roll, the girl who thought she knew who her dad was, before she saw clearly all that he wasn’t. On the cusp of building my own adult life and my own version of a family, perhaps I yearned for a small piece of my childhood that felt mostly like love, stability, and beauty. Maybe I needed to look back, to know how to move forward. Or maybe I just needed the carbs.

In my own kitchen, I’ve developed a method for just the right seam. There is no need for egg wash or dabs of water, only a few firm kneads with the heel of your palm in the right places. Apply enough pressure to keep the seam intact, but not so tight as to prohibit controlled and gradual oozing.

Unless, of course, you’re going to be anywhere near the West Virginia state line. In that case, I’ll take a bag for now and two for my freezer.

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