The story of West Virginia's pepperoni roll—which, if you didn't grow up there, you've probably never heard of—is that it was an invention of necessity. Coal miners needed easy lunches; somebody started wrapping bread dough around cut sticks of pepperoni and baking them.
It sounds simple, and it is, but the pepperoni roll is more than the sum of its parts. Pepperoni rolls fueled an industry. They continue to feed both rich and poor, and, perhaps most importantly, they are West Virginia's alone. Which is to say that West Virginians take them seriously. There's the matter of filling: stuffed with pepperoni sticks or slices; plain or with hot pepper, provolone or mozzarella cheese; unadulterated or split and topped with hot dog chili. There's also the matter of bakery allegiances, which are many and tend to map with devotees' childhood homes. (I'm partial to Julia's, baked in Morgantown, where I grew up.)
Understandably, people got pretty upset this summer when Sheetz—a regional gas station chain popular for long haul-worthy coffee and made-to-order sandwiches—chose an out-of-state bakery to supply pepperoni rolls to West Virginia, replacing the three local bakeries it'd been using (Abruzzino's, Rogers & Mazza, and Home Industry). Director of brand Ryan Sheetz said the goal had been to find one supplier for the company's entire 508-store, six-state market, but that hardly assuaged angry customers who took their outrage to Facebook:
"I will not shop there ever again as long as you don't use the local bakers pepperoni rolls from WV. It may seem petty to you, but it has a big impact on their economy."
"Please reconsider your decision to seek an outside vendor for pepperoni rolls in West Virginia. You are taking our cultural heritage, making an inauthentic version, and selling it back to us. This is unacceptable."
Sheetz retreated, finding a North Carolina supplier for broader distribution and keeping Home Industry, a Clarksburg outfit owned by Pam and Mike Harris, for the Mountain State. "If we need a delivery, Pam is going to leave her house and deliver them herself," Sheetz said. "That hungry entrepreneurship, we can connect with that. We can seem like a goliath, but we think of ourselves as a family business."
"Hungry entrepreneurship" might suggest that Home Industry is new, but it's been around for 80 years, since the days when it was a place for home bakers to sell pastries, cookies, pepperoni rolls, and the like. When the Harrises bought it in 1984, Mike was a city bus driver and Pam a stay-at-home mom. Pam was 24 and knew nothing about running a business, but she had a knack for sales. She still makes deliveries twice a week and is such a welcome face to customers that, when news of the Sheetz decision broke, a client and Sheetz competitor called to congratulate her. Today, business is brisk: On a recent Sunday, the baking crew made more than 23,000 rolls, shaping them by hand and baking them in an ancient oven with an ever-turning wheel of racks. They were baking again the next day.
With pepperoni rolls' portability and cheap price tag—a dozen small rolls at Home Industry goes for $3.75—they're ideal for a few categories: miners, of course; hunters; and college students. But when I asked some West Virginia University students about the Sheetz outcry—which I saw as an impassioned ownership of Appalachian food culture—they were underwhelmed. "It's just bread, pepperoni, and cheese," said Taylor Parrish, an 18-year-old from Morgantown. "Anybody can do it. Yes, it's part of our Appalachian culture, but it's not special."
She's right, in a way. Appalachian food isn't as distinctive as that of Cajun country or the Barbecue Belt. It is simple country food. Appalachian food culture, then, is more esoteric; and, like most esoteric topics, it's something that a few people think about a lot, and many people don't think about at all. But it's impossible to isolate a foodway from its people: At a table of WVU students in the student union, talk of pepperoni rolls quickly turned to talk of local pride. Mariah White, a 19-year-old native of Wheeling, West Virginia, said that, despite jokes about missing teeth and married cousins, coming to college had made her proud to be from the Mountain State. Even 19-year-old Douglas Wright—a classmate from Raleigh, North Carolina—said that although "everyone bashes on West Virginia" back home, "it's the most beautiful place I've ever been."
"People take a lot of pride in West Virginia," Pam Harris said. She does, too—and in being a growing piece of the local food economy. (Harris has hired six employees to keep up with demand and said that Home Industry does about $165,000 in sales in six weeks; that works out to about $1.6 million per year.) "I like providing a West Virginia product for West Virginians," she said. "I've been here my whole life. West Virginia people are passionate about their state. People make fun of us, but whatever. I don't think about that kind of stuff."