Cultural Appropriation and Pepperoni Rolls

For a non-conformist, I really enjoy being told what to do. A full-time freelancer spends a lot of energy creating order from chaos and rustling up work from thin air, so when I get an assignment from a client to develop a specific recipe, I'm happy to take it.

One of my clients, a large retail corporation, often gives me assignments to develop recipes for a mainstream American audience. I love working with the company, but I sometimes feel conflicted about developing recipes for an "Asian steak bowl" or a "Mexican rice skillet." The steak bowl is Asian because it features rice and some kind of soy marinade on the meat. The rice skillet is Mexican because it has corn, cumin, and chili powder. 

As a Caucasian mutt, I don't have a specific cuisine tied into my identity and family tradition, and so I never felt the sting of an outsider swooping down and flower-picking various ingredients and techniques for the sake of novelty...until a few weeks ago.

I grew up in Southeast Ohio, across the river from West Virginia. Four years ago, I moved back. It's more Appalachian than Midwestern, though in many ways it's simultaneously both things and neither of them. I call it the Appalachian Interzone. My parents, both native Ohioans, moved here 37 years ago, and people here in town still consider them outsiders. "Bir?" they'll say when I answer their inquiries about my last name ("Who are your parents?" is not a big-city question, but a small-town one). "Hmm, I don't know any Birs." While I find this scrutiny amusing, I see its usefulness; it's a simple attempt to tease out connections, create a community context. 

So I, too, am now an insider-outsider. Certain aspects I thought were universal during my youth I now see as highly regional, and one of those things is the pepperoni roll. 

There is nothing not to love about pepperoni rolls, unless you are an avid fan of nutrition, because there is nothing beneficial about them in that aspect. They are wads of cottony white bread stuffed with greasy, salty cured meat. A tiny bakery here in town made them; their version featured two pencil-thin sticks of pepperoni encased in the fluffy roll. One made an ideal snack; two, a satisfying lunch.

Pepperoni rolls hail from West Virginia. The lore says an Italian-American baker in Fairmont created them so coal miners could have a filling and portable lunch down in the mines. These days, you are more likely to find pepperoni rolls at a gas station or grocery store, but small-town bakeries still make them, too. Sometimes there is cheese in or on the roll. Sometimes pizza sauce is served on the side, or--gasp!--in the roll itself. I am a purist, and I like the rolls buttery and soft, with only pepperoni inside. 

There's also a sticks vs. slices debate. Though I once preferred the pepperoni sticks (the lunchmeat version of a chocolate baton in a pain au chocolat), I am now a convert to the slices, because they are better distributed in the roll and thereby leech more of the flavorful, bright orange grease into the bready interior. It's a déclassé version of brioche, almost. I love brioche. 

Currently I am working on a cookbook called Tasting Ohio: Favorite Recipes from the Buckeye State. The book collects recipes from chefs and food producers all over Ohio; it's meant to be a survey of Ohio's abundance and diversity, not a definitive encyclopedic tome on Ohio's regional foods. Pepperoni rolls initially didn't seem to be a good fit for the book, because they are the official state food of West Virginia (I say this literally, not figuratively--the WV state legislature passed the resolution marking it such in 2013), and Tasting Ohio is an Ohio cookbook. But I grew up in Ohio, eating pepperoni rolls. Ohioans up and down the Ohio River Valley did, too. Who am I to deny the Appalachian Interzone a voice in Tasting Ohio? It exists! I exist in the Appalachian Interzone at this moment!

I gave in to my misgivings. The rolls are going in the book. The classic homemade pepperoni roll recipe is insanely simple.

1. Buy Rhodes frozen dinner roll dough.

2. Thaw it.

3. Shape it into rolls with either slices or sticks (and perhaps, god forbid, cheese).

4. Bake. Cool somewhat. Eat.

I wanted to start with homemade roll dough, so I sniffed around for source recipes to compare, and in my research I came across a pepperoni roll recipe in Cook's Country. Cook's Country is the less austere sister publication of Cook's Illustrated. Both magazines take extreme pains to build fail-safe recipes that deliver what, in their eyes, are the best results possible. The Cook's Country pepperoni rolls had sesame seeds on top, which instantly tipped me off. They could not be the real deal! Never, ever have I seen pepperoni rolls with sesame seeds on top. Who did those Massholes think they were, plucking one of West Virginia's fine traditions and mucking it up to suit their elitist tastes?

It was my turn to be on the receiving end of Asian Steak Bowl fury. It riled me up enough that I didn't read the Cook's Country recipe, or the accompanying short article setting it upso I can't go point my finger at them and cry "Columbusing!" That, by the way, is a newish term for appropriating an aspect of one culture and acting as if you discovered it. West Virginia, and Appalachia in general, is tragically misunderstood by most people in our nation. It's thought of as white trash, politically backwards, culturally bereft, and appallingly unsophisticated. Some of those assumptions are founded in reality, but West Virginia is also rich with folklore, extremely fertile in all aspects of the arts, and home to its own legitimate foodways. I know many smart, proud, and delightful West Virginians. Every time something good about West Virginia sneaks into the national consciousness, I want to give the state a fist-bump. But, just as the natural splendor of the state has been mined by greedy outside interests for its fossil fuels, so to have its food traditions been mined by superficial foodies who, say, want the cachet of ramps without understanding anything about the cultural meaning the plant has to rural mountain folk. I want pepperoni-loving people everywhere to be embrace pepperoni rolls, but I also want them to understand that they are a salt-of-the-earth delicacy, the street food of the coal mines. To render them foufy with sesame seeds is missing the point.

In my pepperoni rolls for Tasting Ohio, I use the fancy deli pepperoni slices, not the so-so Hormel stuff. I add honey and full-fat buttermilk to my dough, and brush the proofing rolls with melted butter. None of those things are standard issue in a typical pepperoni roll, but I feel I can get away with it, because I'm from here. Does it all come down to feelings and birthrights?

I attended a great panel discussion at this year's IACP conference called "Is What's Mine Yours? How to Avoid Cultural Appropriation in Your Writing." One of the speakers (I think it was Andrea Nguyen, an expert on Vietnamese cooking and never one to shy away from critical thinking) pointed out that appropriation is taking, while collaboration is giving. Giving credit, giving context, giving goodwill. Being mindful that a recipe is never just a recipe, and a seemingly innocuous white bread roll stuffed with pizza toppings is never just a roll. Is it okay to fling sesame seeds over them if you don't have roots in the Mountain State? Is it okay to include them in Tasting Ohio when you're a fringe element in the Appalachian Interzone? Is it justifiable to look Cook's Country in the eye and ask, "Who are your parents?" Good intentions go a long way, but good research goes further. What I can pull off in the privacy of my own home can't always be explained away in the few short sentences of a recipe headnote. Someone could write an entire book on pepperoni rolls. Someone should.

Maybe it shouldn't be me.  

Comestible's Summer Issue Kickstarter Is Up

See that papercut? It's by Anna Brones, founder and editor of Comestible, a quarterly food journal with a wonderful handmade feel and inspiring content that's full of heart and free from pretension. I have a recipe in the Spring issue, plus an essay on sweet corn coming up in the Summer issue. Go to Comestible's Kickstarter page to order a Summer 2016 copy. There are some fun merch/goodies there, too. 

Ramps and Reverse Foraging

My recent Serious Eats feature (which yay, I’m so excited about) is an inside look at ramp dinners, but my initial interest in ramps came about from the attraction of finding and getting them. Looking for ramps in the woods in the spring is a bit of a treasure hunt in nature. A person heading out foraging and coming back empty-handed at least got outside for a while and saw many non-ramp examples of wildlife, and that was pleasing to me.

I think that’s part of why ramps have become so trendy the past decade; even if you don’t get the full-on foraging experience from buying them at a fancy farmers’ market, just having them on your plate connects you to the larger romance of their story.

But this year I learned more about how our love for ramps is harming them. Nature can’t keep up with the demand, and ramps—while hearty—are very slow to grow.

Ramps were my introduction to foraging, but I like to get out and scrabble around for all kinds of greens, fruits, forest herbs, and mushrooms. Oftentimes I am not very successful, but the success is ultimately about reconnecting with my role in the immediate ecosystem where I happen to be at the time. Still, the lure of going into the woods is not nearly as potent without the potential reward of encountering something delicious to eat.

So I decided to be a little bit more proactive in making sure my actions help preserve the forest habitat I love so much—without it, there is no foraging. I think of it as reverse foraging. It may be just a drop in the bucket in the face of everything our modern lives do to alter the landscape we live on, but I think intentions go a long way for one’s spiritual well-being.

  • Planting ramp bulbs in areas in decimated ramp patches, or, better yet, collecting ramp seeds in the early fall and planting them in the woods (which is actually very easy).

  • Pulling up invasive garlic mustard and properly disposing of it so it does not spread. This one in particular is like beating back waves, because garlic mustard is very tenacious. But I saw some growing in my favorite ramp patch, and I was like, “that’s it, man! This is WAR!” Also, pulling up garlic mustard can be cathartic if you are in a foul mood.

  • Following the basic principles of courtesy by not foraging for more than the land can easily recover from.

  • Getting friends excited about the wonders of what grows right where you live. Even if someone is not going to go out and collect shagbark hickory nuts, just knowing they exist increases the value humans place on those trees, and, by extension, the biodiversity of their surroundings.

There’s a school of thought that the changes humans make to our natural systems is, in its own way, natural (e.g. invasive species accidentally coming over to new landmasses on ships, or people intentionally introducing new species). I get thisthere were no apples in North America prior to the arrival of the Europeans, and goddamn do I love apples—but I think it’s fine to make judgments on a case-by-case basis, rather than cop out and say “fuck it, we’re screwed, but I’ll be dead by the time it matters.” Just today I was thinking there could be a year when I have grandkids and I’d tell them, “I remember when there were bats in North America,” or “There used to be these wild onions in the woods called ramps, and I liked to dig them up and cook them.” What a dreary future to have in store. I don’t want us to get there without a fight.

The Taste of Violets

Despite the momentary cold snap, violets are popping up everywhere now. Last year at this time it settled into me as a slow-burning mania, and I decided I just had to make violet syrup. Read my essay here on Full Grown People to find out what happened (hint: it's probably not what you think happened).

I did discover a few things about violets.

  • It takes baskets and baskets of violets to get anything close to enough for culinary applications with any kind of character.
  • Some violets have more flavor and aroma than others.
  • My front yard violets are bland, and whatever violets went into the violet extract my friend Nikki brought back from France and added to her violet buttercream are not bland.
  • Adding lemon zest to violet sugar to punch up its flavor will make the violet sugar turn a muted fuchsia instead. It's the chemical reaction between the anthocyanins in the violets and the acid in the lemon zest (lemon zest isn't that acidic, but it's acidic enough, apparently) that dulls the color.
  • My days of cooking with violets are probably finished. I think I got it out of my system. Picking violets is fun, but as far as edible rewards and foragables, I much prefer mushrooms, greens, and fruit.
That's the finished, faded violet sugar on the scones. It still tasted sweet.

That's the finished, faded violet sugar on the scones. It still tasted sweet.

Get Your Hands In the Dirt

Spring is here. Gardening is nigh. Last week I fluffed up the dirt in our raised bed and planted some brassicas and herbs and lettuces and radishes and...hmm, I think that's it for now. I even tested the soil and amended it a little with some fancy compost. This will hopefully be an abundant growing season.

You can build your own low-cost version of the raised bed pictured above by following this step-by-step tutorial I did for Paste Magazine. It uses reclaimed materials and is a lot cheaper and sturdier than a similar raised bed kit I saw at the hardware store this weekend.

Also! I have two pressure cooking classes coming up in May and June at The Seasoned Farmhouse. Click here to learn more.


Monster Cookies and the Beast of Inspiration

For food writers, maintaining a balance can be difficult. Most of us would have the public to think we spend our days in a photogenic sequence of tasting, pondering, journaling, and then mess-free tinkering in the kitchen.

But if you’re doing it right, this is definitely not the way it goes for anyone. The ebb and flow of deadlines seems to collide with spells of failed recipes and technical issues: a leak under the sink, a downed internet connection, a flat tire when you need to drive to a special store to get a very specific ingredient.

This is why I don’t like to blog. Writing about the mundane inconveniences I face may be honest, but it’s not very engaging. And I don’t want to project an airbrushed (or filtered, as it were) image of what my daily life consists of. There’s a lot of typing and a lot of using the internet and a lot of cross-referencing different recipes. There’s a TON of grocery shopping and washing dishes and wiping down kitchen counters and sweeping flour and crumbs off the floor.  

And there’s cooking. I get antsy if I go a few days without cooking. I taught a pressure cooking class this weekend, and I’ve been developing recipes for a few different assignments the past few weeks, so I’ve been in the kitchen a lot, but yesterday I realized I needed to just get in the kitchen and cook for fun.

That’s where the balance comes in. If you don’t make space in your schedule to lavish in the sheer joy of making food with no agenda, then your writing and your recipes won’t be inspired at all. You have to put yourself in the place that made you want to get into food writing in the first place.

So a few days ago I blocked out several hours and made the food I wanted to make. I minced the cores and stems of some broccoli and cauliflower, and I cooked them in a skillet with some olive oil until they were browned in some parts and soft in others. I made a miso dressing and cooked some quinoa and made myself a big bowl of healthy stuff, because that’s what I like to eat.

And then I cleaned up and went to pick my daughter up from school. Out of the blue she asked me if we could make monster cookies, and I said yes, even though monster cookies had absolutely nothing to do with any of the assignments or independent projects I had going on.

We needed to get M&Ms to make monster cookies. Without M&Ms, they are a different cookie. We got the M&Ms. We made the cookies. I experienced the small triumph of my parenting identity and my writer-chef identity intersecting peacefully. Most of the time I feel them tugging at one another, keeping me from being fully present in any one role, but for about fifteen minutes I was right in the zone with Frances. It felt good.

I though the freestyle cooking and the cookie-making sessions would set me behind the following day, but I wound up tearing through my to-do list. I also decided I needed to type up the monster cookie recipe, because I tinkered with it a bit, and I was happy with how those came out, too. Frances was even happier, though.

Monster Cookies

Makes about 2-1/2 dozen medium cookies

I don’t know too much about the origin of these. Why are they called monster cookies? What region are they most identified with? I do know they are popular here in southeast Ohio, they don’t contain any wheat flour, and despite that they are probably not gluten-free, because I’m sure M&Ms contain gluten somehow, and monster cookies are not monster cookies without M&Ms. Packed with candy and sugar, they are not health food, but they are hearty and wholesome and rich and peanutty. This recipe is an adaptation of an adaptation, like a modern folk song. Like “Louie, Louie” or “Hey Joe.” I love songs like that, and I love these cookies.

·         4 cups rolled oats

·         1-3/4 teaspoon baking soda

·         ½ teaspoon table salt

·         1-1/2 cups peanut butter (chunky or smooth, processed or natural)

·         ½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened

·         2 cups light brown sugar

·         2 large eggs

·         1 teaspoon vanilla extract

·         12 ounces (1-1/2 cups) semisweet chocolate chips or chunks

·         12 ounces (1-1/2 cups) milk chocolate M&Ms

1.       Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Arrange the racks in the upper and lower thirds of the oven. Line two baking sheets with parchment or silicon baking mats and set aside.

2.       If you’d like the oats to be a little more varied in texture, pulse them a few times in a food processor fitted with a metal blade, until some are powdery and others are still whole. Empty into a large bowl. Add the baking soda and salt and stir to combine. Set aside.

3.       In the bowl of an electric mixer, combine and peanut butter and butter. Beat on medium-high speed until smooth. Add the sugar and beat until lightened, about 2 minutes. Add the eggs, one at a time, and beat until fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add the vanilla.

4.       Add the oat mixture, one half at a time, and beat at low speed. Beat in the chocolate chips and M&Ms (you may need to do this with a sturdy wooden spoon instead of the mixer). The dough will be greasy and a little soft, but not crumbly.

5.       Scoop out the dough in rounded tablespoons (about 1-1/2 inches in diameter) and place 12 to a sheet. Bake for about 10-12 minutes, rotating the pans from top to bottom and back to front halfway through baking. The cookies will be lightly browned when ready, but their centers will still feel a bit soft to the touch. Let the cookies rest on the baking sheets for 5 minutes before removing to a wire rack to cool completely. Cookies will keep, tightly covered, for up to 5 days.

A Little Help with Listicies

Photo by Sean MacEntee CC BY

Photo by Sean MacEntee CC BY

Listicles--those breezy list-article hybrids that everyone shares on your Facebook feed--are a bit like marshmallows. Puffy and light, they go down easily, but if you've ever made them at home, you know there are distinct elements to their manufacture. Skip a step and they fall flat.

If you're a food writer who'd like to get in on the listicle action, or an author of published listicles looking to sharpen your writing toolkit, check out the guest post I wrote for Will Write for Food, the blog of food writing coach extraordinaire Dianne Jacob. I talk about the qualities that make or break a list, how to pitch lists to editors, and why lists matter in today's food writing landscape.

You Can Follow Me on Instagram Now

Just in case you were waiting, the wait is over now. I started an Instagram account. If you like pictures of desserts in progress, foraged fruit, or musty old records, you are in luck, my friend! Follow me here (@sausagetarian). 

The above photo is the orange tree across the street from my friend Adam's house in Los Angeles. His neighbor said it's okay to plunder the bounty of these sexy orange trees, and that's exactly what I did. Not all of the oranges were fabulous, but the ones that were just blew my mind--so juicy and sweet. I lived in California for seven years, and I never got over the fact that citrus trees just grow here and there like it's no big deal.