What Pepperoni Rolls Reveal About Ohio’s Most Overlooked Region

One of the most popular yet unsung regional foods in the U.S. is Appalachia’s pepperoni roll. Likewise, the Appalachian region itself gets little attention outside of pernicious stereotypes about “mountain people.” The region spreads across several states, including a large section of Ohio, and the story of the pepperoni roll helps fill in a more detailed look at the history and everyday lives of Appalachian Ohioans. Cover graphic by Jason Mecchi for Midstory.

The pepperoni roll, really, is a poem: self-contained, complete, economical in every sense of the word.

Courtney Balestier, “The Poetry of Pepperoni Rolls”

Pepperoni, bread and cheese. For most Americans, this list of ingredients likely brings to mind a pizza or one of its less popular cousins, the calzone or stromboli. For those living in Upper and Central Appalachia (pronounced “App-uh-latch-uh” by most residents), however, these foods conjure up images of a coal miner’s staple: the pepperoni roll.

Made up of bread baked with either slices or sticks of pepperoni stuffed inside, the pepperoni roll is traditionally served without sauce or other toppings, distancing it from calzone-ness or stromboli-hood. Some sources list cheese as a main ingredient, but others do not.

No matter its recipe, however, Americans in Appalachia can still regularly find pepperoni rolls at convenience stores, grocery stores and school cafeterias across West Virginia, as well as parts of Maryland, Pennsylvania and Ohio. The people who make and eat the rolls are participating in a rich and often untold legacy of Appalachian coal miners and immigrant culture that challenges whitewashed stereotypes of the region.

The pepperoni roll was invented in West Virginia, where it became a favorite lunch of coal miners because it was portable and did not have to be refrigerated. One origin story identifies the pepperoni roll as the sole invention of one Giuseppe Argiro in Fairmont, West Virginia, in 1927. More likely, Calabria, Italy, migrant Argiro took an existing food baked by coal miners’ wives and began selling it at the Country Club Bakery, which is still open and selling pepperoni rolls today.

Regardless of its exact invention, most accounts recognize the pepperoni roll’s genesis as result of the confluence of Italian immigration and labor activism in Appalachia. Coal mining companies wanted to hire cheaper, less demanding labor in the early 20th century, and so turned to immigrant labor. (They found, however, that the Italian American workers were equally likely to unionize as the American-born workforce.)

A prepackaged pepperoni roll. Image courtesy of Rozzell via Wikimedia Commons.

Thus, the stage was set for the pepperoni roll to explode in popularity, attending simultaneously to the longing of immigrants for a taste of home and a practical need for hearty lunches. The working class of migrant and homegrown laborers provided a local base for this trend to spread, but it was Argiro’s commercialization efforts that led the way out of West Virginia.

“I think the commercialization in terms of bakeries starting to make them and sell them widely had a lot to do with [the spread to Ohio],” Tiffany Arnold, assistant professor of instruction at Ohio University and Appalachian Ohio denizen, said.

Appalachia is not an easy region to define: experts seem to disagree on where the region starts and stops. It doesn’t help that Appalachia intersects with more widely known regions like the South and the Midwest, or that the borders of Appalachia do not conform neatly to state borders. 

“You can walk into a room with a hundred different Appalachian scholars and ask what Appalachia is, and you’ll get a hundred different answers, because it depends on how you want to define it,” Arnold said.

The Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) has a wide-ranging definition of Appalachia that includes the entirety of West Virginia, as well as counties in Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio, Maryland, Pennsylvania and New York. That’s 206,000 square miles of land across 423 counties.

The ARC also keeps track of the economic status of counties across Appalachia, assigning a designation based on unemployment, market income and poverty. Many Appalachian counties fall into the more distressed end of this scale, adding another layer of separation even from some of their most immediate neighbors.

For many Americans, myths and realities about Appalachia blend together; images of the Appalachian Mountains and coal mining work that dominate the region provide a backdrop for stereotypes of residents as violent, ignorant and “backwards.”

According to Arnold, negative imagery of Appalachian residents goes back to visits from outsiders, including writers and missionaries, who observed the communities and published or spread exaggerated accounts of what they saw there. Over time, mass media picked up the stereotypes and ran with them.

“‘Snuffy Smith’ was one of the original comic strips about this area. And he was this goofy, bumbling, kind of stupid, lazy guy who was carrying around a bottle of liquor all the time,” Arnold said. “You have shows like ‘Moonshiners’ and ‘Appalachian Outlaws,’ that are [on] the Discovery and the History Channel. And people were like, ‘Oh, it's the History Channel. It should be real life,’ but it's definitely not real life.”

Arnold said movies like “Deliverance” and “Wrong Turn” have pushed the narrative of a violent, threatening and even cannibalistic or inbred Appalachian population. She also noted that some films are starting to push back against this narrow perspective, like the documentary “Hillbilly” and the role-reversal horror film “Tucker and Dale vs. Evil.”

In reality, the history of Appalachia is one of diversity, class struggle and ostracization from surrounding regions like the Midwest and East Coast.

“Appalachia is really a culture that's evolved over time. It's not like an indigenous culture. But it's been around for thousands of years. It's really evolved in response to things that have happened in this region, largely because of outside interest,” Arnold said.

Defining Appalachian culture is just as difficult as defining its borders.

“A lot of people will say that it's easier to say what we're not than what we are,” Arnold said, “because it's so large and wide-reaching that there's a lot of diversity in this region that people don't recognize. People like to think that we're this all-white, Scotch-Irish influenced area that has no diversity at all, and that's not the case.”

Coal mining is and has historically been the dominant industry across Appalachia, which, combined with its immigrant-heavy workforce, created the conditions for the pepperoni roll to emerge. When a non-Appalachian thinks of Ohio landscapes, though, they tend to think of flat land dotted with factories, colleges and farms rather than rocky coal mines.

“I've seen these random things on Facebook or wherever, where people are like, ‘Ohio's in Appalachia?’ and it's like, ‘Yeah, a big part of Ohio is Appalachian.’” Arnold said.

The 32 counties that make up Appalachian Ohio run from Ashtabula County in the northeast to Clermont County in the southwest. According to Arnold, Appalachia has grown over time, thanks to Appalachian communities moving around and taking cultural practices with them.

“So, Ashtabula County in northern Ohio is technically part of the region, and that's because this community all moved together. And when they decided to stay in Ashtabula, they just kept going with traditional ways of life. And so that became Appalachian,” Arnold said.

A common quote about Appalachia reads “Appalachia is in but not of America,” according to Arnold. Many states with Appalachian land are more readily identified as part of the South, the East Coast or the Midwest (like Ohio). This can leave residents of these areas stuck in between two identities or feeling closer to Appalachia than to their state.

“Sometimes it feels like we should be either our own state or maybe part of West Virginia,” Arnold said. “I always felt like I identified more with West Virginians than I did Ohioans, to be honest.”

In the time since the pepperoni roll’s inception, industry and labor have drastically changed in Ohio.

Coal mining does not have the same footprint that it did in the early 20th century. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, coal production in Ohio has declined every year since 2011. The number of coal workers in Ohio has overall decreased by over 80% in just the past 20 years. And this is all long after the passing of progressively stricter laws regulating coal mining and land reclamation efforts in Ohio from the 1940s through the ‘80s.

Reclaimed land in New Athens, Ohio, that was formerly a strip mining site. Image courtesy of the Environmental Protection Agency via Wikimedia Commons.

Despite the decline in coal workers in Ohio, however, the pepperoni roll has persisted as a portable and tasty offering that appeals to people from all walks of life. While Ohioans from northwestern cities like Toledo and Columbus would likely struggle to find them, pepperoni rolls remain widespread in the southern and eastern regions of Ohio. In these areas, buying a pepperoni roll is as routine as picking up a bagel or a bag of chips anywhere else in the country.

The cause of their longevity? Beyond their savor and convenience, pepperoni rolls have become a generational tradition for some, enjoyed by Appalachians now because their parents also enjoyed them. For many, the regional specificity is what makes the rolls special.

“The connection of pepperoni rolls to that idea of activism and labor and hardworking people in the mines is something that I think a lot of people identify with,” Arnold said.

So, while the pepperoni roll may seem like nothing more than a piece of trivia about Appalachia, it’s an important artifact for those living in the region — not because it’s a delicacy or something particularly special, but rather because it’s a part of the everyday lives of hardworking people, past and present.

“So many outside influences have told us over the years that we shouldn't be proud to be from here,” Arnold said. “I think that we just hold on to it, because we're like, ‘This is ours. This is one thing that's ours that isn't bad, and that people can appreciate and enjoy.’”

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