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.