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Pepperoni roll full of irony

I’m writing this before the end of West Virginia’s session Saturday. But it is possible that by the time you read it, the official state food of the Mountain State will be the pepperoni roll. (When I checked Thursday evening, the measure had passed the House, but was sitting in the Senate Rules Committee.)

Plenty of you are probably wondering, as I did, Wait, it wasn’t already?

Nope. But it might as well have been.

I remember trying once to describe pepperoni rolls to colleagues in another state.

“Oh, you mean strombolis,” they said. No, I mean pepperoni rolls. You can’t eat a stromboli with one hand after it’s sat in a lunch bucket for several hours. Too messy.

The story of our favorite homegrown food is fascinating. Country Club Bakery in Fairmont gets the nod for being its birthplace, though Tomaro’s could probably build a case, too. Country Club Bakery’s story is that its founder had been a coal miner and noticed other Italian miners bringing bread and pepperoni as their lunch because it was a “shelf stable” combination, and easy to eat.

When he left the mines and started his bakery, Giuseppe Argiro perfected the combination by baking sticks of pepperoni into the bread and began selling it. (He was a smart man, who started out by letting those same Italian miners test the product at beer halls.) This would have been sometime in the late 1920s.

Now, of Italian heritage or not, just about every West Virginian’s mom, grandma, aunt, uncle … some relative makes the best pepperoni rolls anyone’s ever tasted, and there’s no changing their minds. It’s everyone’s favorite “ethnic food,” and most of us never think of it as anything but West Virginian.

Who sees where I’m going with this? Everyone? Good.

As found in some classroom materials archived on the Library of Congress website, Italian immigrants had it rough in the late 19th and early 20th Century. They faced labor struggles, of course, but also “had to confront a wave of virulent prejudice and nativist hostility.” They were blamed for taking “American jobs,” and the victim of racist pseudo-scientific theories that suggested “Mediterranean” types were inherently inferior to those of northern European heritage. They were victims of violence on the part of anti-immigrant organizations and groups like the Ku Klux Klan.

Political cartoons made suggestions that “If immigration was properly restricted, you would never be troubled with anarchism, socialism, the Mafia and such kindred evils!”

In case you zoned out, I am writing about an attitude and behavior that was prevalent 100 years ago. But change out the word “Mafia” for “organized crimes,” and that cartoon could be drawn by a certain segment of syndicated artists today. I wonder if some of the same West Virginia lawmakers who were in favor of making the pepperoni roll our official state food were also in favor of making it illegal for schools to talk about such “divisive concepts” as what Italian immigrants experienced at the time the pepperoni roll was developed.

I also wonder, once those lawmakers are shown to be stubbornly on the wrong side of history, what delicious discovery will be the official food of the next state that falls in love with what its newest residents create. The beautiful thing about living in a country like ours is the possibilities are endless.

Christina Myer is executive editor of The Parkersburg News and Sentinel. She can be reached via e-mail at cmyer@newsandsentinel.com

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