West Virginia Food is Much More than Ramps and Pepperoni Rolls… Maybe

Posted by | August 14, 2014

Kent WhitakerPlease welcome guest author Kent Whitaker. Whitaker is the author and co-author of eight cookbooks, three history books, and two books for children which he wrote and illustrated. His co-authored books with Shelia Simmons include the Tennessee Hometown Cookbook, the Texas Hometown Cookbook, the Georgia Hometown Cookbook, the Mississippi Hometown Cookbook, the Louisiana Hometown Cookbook, and the South Carolina Hometown Cookbook(Great American Publishers.) His love of barbecue, grilling and tailgating are showcased in Smoke in the Mountains – the Art of Appalachian Barbecue and Checkered Flag Cooking – Tailgating Stock Car Racing (Quail Ridge Press.) Whitaker has also written three history books, one of which is a culinary history of WWII. These books include Bullets and Bread (History Publishing Co.), The USS Alabama, and Talladega Superspeedway (Arcadia Publishing.) He has also written and illustrated two children’s books, Why are the Mountains Smoky? (Overmountain Press) and Big Mo’s Tennis Ball Hunt (Great American Publishers). Whitaker has appeared on the Food Network and other television stations, has hosted cooking classes throughout the South, and writes a cooking column for The National Barbecue News. He also hosts a short format radio show heard on over 60 stations across the country.

 

There are more culinary delights than just pepperoni rolls and wild ramps when it comes to food in the state of West Virginia. I know that may sound a bit on the obvious side to West Virginians. However, I must admit that I still tend to have a few preconceived notions of what foods best represent a state even though I’m a culinary writer and cookbook author.

WV hometown cookbook

My longtime role as a tailgater may have influenced my thoughts about the pepperoni roll. I’ve had versions of them at tailgates involving West Virginia University, Marshall University, and other colleges for years. As a traveler, lover of Appalachian style cooking, and history buff I’ve long known about wild ramps. After all, I live in East Tennessee and ramps are found here as well.

The great thing is that every time I complete one of my books I realize how much I’ve learned about each state. The West Virginia Hometown Cookbook is my fourteenth book and the seventh in the Hometown Cookbook Series. Sheila Simmons, of Great American Publishing, and I co-author the Hometown series and so far it includes Tennessee, Georgia, Mississippi, Texas, Louisiana, South Carolina and now West Virginia. We learn something new with each book.

Working on the West Virginia Hometown Cookbook was once again a learning experience. I love being able to combine recipes from my own kitchen with those from West Virginia kitchens. I also include recipes from producers, growers, chefs, and even food related agencies and associations. I see my cookbooks as culinary history books.

When people give me a recipe to share in any book or article I always ask them to include a couple of lines of information about the history of the dish. Was it a family favorite? Was the recipe passed down over generations? Or, did mom get the recipe off a back of a can or food package and make it into her own? Why is it considered a family classic and why is it special? I find that the history of a dish is much more interesting than a book filled with pages and pages of generic recipes.

The Pepperoni Roll is That Important

Now that the book is in the hands of the editor it’s time to reflect a bit on some of the things that I learned, or observed, or thoughts that I walked away with upon completion. The first thing that pops into mind is actually the Pepperoni Roll. As a person from another state you could understand that my knowledge of the humble dish is simply that they taste awesome.

Peprollcropped2

I was completely unaware of the history behind the rolls — and I’m a history guy. I had several people send me recipes, more than we could include in the book, as well as a few people who said to please play them down. These people, while well meaning, seemed to only see the rolls as convenience store food along side of Twinkies and two packs of peanuts for a dollar.

It turns out that the rolls actually are a fantastic representative of the state’s history. They were born out of necessity for hardworking people. The original the pepperoni roll was invented by Giuseppe “Joseph” Argiro at the Country Club Bakery in Fairmont, West Virginia. Some reports have its birthday as being in the 1920’s; others place it as first being baked in the 1940’s. Regardless, it’s really not disputed that Argiro combined hot rolls and the tasty pieces of meat in a simple form that people, especially coal miners, could eat without difficulty. It did not require reheating, was easy to carry to work, and literally required no cleanup after munching it down. An easy food for hardworking people.

Wild Ramps

A funny thing happened when I was talking to a nice lady about heritage dishes from the state. When I mentioned that I had a couple of my own Tennessee Wild Ramp recipes she was stunned to find out other states had wild ramps! In fact wild ramps can be found from Canada all the way to Alabama and from the east coast to states across the Mississippi.

By the same token, I have a contact in Tennessee who told me that she had never had a ramp. That’s fine, as I’m sure many people have not tasted them. I found the comment to be strange, though, because I knew this person was very interested in heritage cooking and locally grown foods. It took a while for both of us to realize that the Wild Ramps I was talking about were the same plants that she called Spring Onions.

Photo by USDA/Forest Service.

Photo by USDA/Forest Service.

Ramps play a large part in my love of Appalachian cooking, as they were used by cooks ranging from early settlers to hometown cooks as a way to add some flavor to foods coming out of winter. Before the days of well stocked grocery stores and mega markets many families relied on stored food in root cellars and canning jars. Travel to town, which could have been a good distance away, for an onion, may not have been possible. Gravel roads, snow, ice, winter rain, and mountains made the trips we take for granted now much more difficult.

As the winter went on the food chest would become a more limited in freshness. It’s almost like being on a submarine or ship at sea for long periods of time. One WWII veteran told me that after two weeks he never saw fresh fruit or vegetables again until they pulled into a port. For him, finally seeing land was kind of like the coming of spring years ago in rural areas of the country that relied heavily on home grown gardens over a long winter. Spring in the mountains then, and somewhat still today, meant an abundance of flavor was growing everyday and all you had to do was some hand picking.

How This All Comes Together

I guess the whole purpose of this essay is to say this: West Virginia has a love for food ranging from heirloom culinary items, fine dining, leather britches and cornbread, as well as to delights as simple as a pepperoni roll or slaw-dog. The slow food/local food movements have chefs and cooks looking to the past for inspiration. They are finding a food heritage in West Virginia that has an amazing lineage. Everything from frontier style cooking with the bare basics to fancy church social dishes, then back to Cast Iron skillet cornbread with bacon drippings.

WV Cornbread

Recipes could be of Italian, Scottish, Irish, Greek, German, Chinese, African American, Polish, or Portuguese heritage, and more. A recipe could even have come from the back of a cream of chicken soup can that your aunt saved to her recipe clipping collection over thirty years ago. Even though she originally got it from a can label she has since made it her own, and a holiday meal would not be complete without it.

It’s hard to say what makes a food in any particular state, or family, a special one. It really all comes down to your own family, your own kitchen, and your own memories. Thinking of a food as an heirloom one, or a recipe as being historical is a wonderful concept. That’s why I write my books, so we can save our culinary history one slice at a time.

However, I’ve learned one important lesson when talking about food with people and how certain dishes played a role in their own families. Never discount a good memory. The tradition of dipping cookies and pretzels in melted chocolate coating with the kids at Christmas is special. Just because your grandmother’s hash brown casserole was clipped from an old magazine does not mean you didn’t savor the flavor every time she made it.

Those kinds of memories are just as treasured as hand picking ramps, drying beans, and home canning vegetables… or eating a peperoni roll.

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