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This story originally aired in the Aug. 13, 2023 episode of Inside Appalachia.
It’s 7:30 a.m. in the kitchen at Horace Mann Middle School in Charleston, West Virginia. Breakfast just wrapped up, but lunch is already heavy on everyone’s minds. There’s a lot of cooking to do between then and now.
Food Services Coordinator Lori Lanier shows me how to make Kanawha County Schools’ famous pepperoni rolls.
It starts — as all pepperoni rolls do — with the dough. But not just any dough. That’s one of the secrets of Kanawha schools’ pepperoni rolls. They are made using the same recipe as the delicious, soft and sweet hot rolls that accompany every school Thanksgiving dinner and Salisbury steak.
“I don’t care how many times you make them, sometimes you may have a pinch more flour or a pinch less flour. You just have to watch the consistency, because it’s all on how the flour is sifted,” Lanier explains over the rumble of a jumbo-sized stand mixer.
It will take several batches of dough to make enough pepperoni rolls for the school. Each batch then has to raise for half an hour before the process can continue.
After the dough has risen, cooks still have to individually stuff and shape the rolls, filling giant sheet pans that go into a 350 degree oven for 15 minutes. Once the tops are golden brown, the rolls come out of the oven and are brushed with a coating of melted butter.
Cooks will tell you — this is one of the most time consuming lunches to prepare. A lot of schools shift pepperoni roll day to the end of the week so they can work on the rolls a few days in advance. Horace Mann made half of their rolls the day before I visited, storing them in the walk-in cooler until it was time to pop them in the oven.
But there is a good reason to go to all this trouble. These pepperoni rolls are beloved by generations of school kids.
“On pepperoni roll days, the teachers would let you out five or ten minutes early so you could get to the cafeteria, because there was always such a long line,” said Whitney Humphrey, a friend and former co-worker who graduated from Riverside High School in 2007. “Because even kids who typically didn’t eat school lunch would eat lunch on pepperoni roll day.”
It was a similar story at Capital High School, where Brittany Carowick graduated in 2006.
“We’d always try to talk our teachers into letting us, in class, at the door so we could run all the way across the courtyard and be first in line for pepperoni rolls. Because they’re so good,” she said.
And Carowick really shouldn’t have been eating the pepperoni rolls.
“I’m actually allergic to pepperoni. But I still loved the pepperoni rolls. So I would unroll them, take the line of pepperoni out, hand it to all my friends, roll it back up and eat it,” she said.
Tom Bragg is also a former coworker of mine. He graduated from Nitro High School, where his love of pepperoni rolls turned him into something of a scam artist.
“Twenty years ago, you were assigned a lunch number. It wasn’t like a scan card or a barcode,” he said. “They told you, ‘Here’s your three-digit or four-digit number — don’t forget it.’”
At some point, Bragg realized these numbers had been assigned alphabetically and in numerical order. So his best friend, who just happened to share the same last name, had a lunch number just one digit away from his own.
“My best friend always brought his lunch or would skip school and go get lunch somewhere else,” Bragg said. “So I was like, man, he’s not taking advantage of pepperoni roll day. And his number is one before mine. So I’m just going to go back through line and get a second pepperoni roll.”
The plan went off without a hitch — until his friend’s mom received a lunch bill.
“We were at his house and the lunch bill came. His mom was like, ‘I thought you didn’t eat lunch at school,’” Bragg said. “And I started giggling. She was like, ‘Tommy you owe me $10 for the pepperoni rolls you ate last month.’”
This probably comes as no surprise. At this point, pepperoni rolls are an iconic West Virginia food: invented in the north-central part of the state by Italian immigrants who wanted a portable lunch to take into the coal mines. The story is as well-known as John Henry or Mothman.
But if you’re a West Virginian who didn’t grow up within an hour’s drive from Clarksburg, cast your mind back about 20 or 30 years. How prevalent were pepperoni rolls back then?
I went to school one county away from Kanawha, in Boone County. We never had pepperoni rolls on our school menu. I’ve polled folks around my age who grew up in neighboring counties — Putnam, Lincoln, Jackson, Logan, Clay, Nicholas — and none of them had pepperoni rolls at school, either.
Even my Kanawha County friends who enjoyed pepperoni rolls at school didn’t have many memories of them outside the lunchroom.
“Kanawha County Schools is where we learned about pepperoni rolls,” Bragg said. “You started seeing them pop up in gas stations after that.”
So here’s what I decided to figure out — when did pepperoni rolls first appear in Kanawha County Schools, and how did the dish come to appear on the menu?
“It became kind of a quest,” said Diane Miller, Kanawha County Schools’ director of Child Nutrition.
Once Miller heard about my research project, she started fishing around, too. There’s apparently no paper record of the pepperoni rolls’ first appearance. There’s no archive of school menus that we could dig into. So she had to rely on school employees’ memories.
“They believe it started between 1992 and 1994. But we in Kanawha County can get it back to ‘97, ‘98.”
She talked with the Kanawha superintendent and folks from the West Virginia Department of Education. She even found some retired school cooks and picked their brains.
That’s how she discovered a possible origin story.
”They were making their own pizza breads and they ran out, and didn’t know what else to do. So they decided — they had roll dough for the next day, so they put them together. They’d had pepperoni rolls with their families that were working in the mines,” Miller said.
I asked Miller to connect me with a cook who might know some of the history — and she directed me to Nancy Romeo.
“I have made more pepperoni rolls than you can shake a stick at,” she said.
Romeo retired in 2010 after 20 years with the county. She says pepperoni rolls were already on the menu when she arrived in 1990. She even called a former coworker to make sure.
“We were hired about the same time. Both of us agree that they were making them before we both were hired,” Romeo said.
That was as much information as she could give me. But I had one more lead.
I called in a favor at the Charleston Gazette-Mail. There was a time when the paper printed the Kanawha schools’ menu for each week. Using that, I thought maybe we could pinpoint the first reference of pepperoni rolls.
My connection checked the newspaper archive and it turns out school menus didn’t run in the paper in the 1980s and early 1990s. But I did get the name of another retired school cook — Ellen Carter.
I found Carter in the kitchen of the Rand Community Center. She told me she didn’t really have time for an interview. But she agreed to let me hang out while she made hot rolls.
“This is going to make 120, and I feed about 112 or 115 people,” she said. “The pepperoni rolls are made out of the same dough.”
Carter has worked in this same kitchen for most of the last 50 years. She went to work for Rand Elementary in 1970 and stayed until 1999. The school shut down a few years later and became a community center. When that happened, Carter came back to cook for the center’s senior nutrition program.
“I’m 89, and in October, I’ll be 90,” she said.
I figured if anyone would remember when the pepperoni rolls made their school lunch debut, it would be Ellen Carter.
“I think it was the early ‘80s that they started making pepperoni rolls,” she said.
Carter couldn’t give a more exact time frame. She had no idea how the rolls came to be on school menus in the first place. But she said the recipe probably was disseminated in one of the school cooks’ regular meetings.
“We used to have monthly meetings. And we’d go to a different school, we’d take a covered dish, we’d take a menu to the dish we made, and they’d make a copy of them. I have gobs of them,” Carter said.
One thing Carter does know — the way she was taught to make the rolls is not the way cooks are making them now.
Instead of shaping them individually, she’d get a big lump of dough rolled out flat.
“Then you go back and roll it with a rolling pin,” Carter said.
She would top it with cheese and pepperoni, then roll the whole thing into a log.
“And then you cut it and roll your pepperoni rolls,” Carter said. “I don’t know anybody that rolls them out like we do.”
Carter still makes a lot of pepperoni rolls. She recently got a call to make 1,000 for a local high school, which was selling them as a fundraiser. She doesn’t usually make them for her senior citizens, though. They’re not huge fans.
“They like a hot meal. Like today, we’re going to do a baked potato and a salad,” Carter said.
Carter’s senior citizens might not care much for pepperoni rolls, but I know some folks who do.
The pepperoni rolls were going fast the day I visited Horace Mann Middle, but I managed to snag a few and tuck them away in my bag. That way, once I got my friends to open up about their pepperoni roll memories, I could surprise them with a taste of the past.
“This is exactly what I remember. Look at all that pepperoni. You can see the cheese has a little bit of that pepperoni grease on it,” Whitney Humphrey said as she tore into hers. “It’s divine.”
“Oh my gosh, that’s a trip down memory lane. That is so good,” Tom Bragg said between bites. “The meat-to-cheese ratio is great. The cheese is melted but not like lava — cooked long enough that the grease from the pepperoni has soaked into the bread but hasn’t burned it or overtaken it. This is great.”
Brittany Carowick — whose skin still gets a little itchy when she eats cured meats — quickly fell into her old habits.
“I’m pulling apart the outer layer of bread, and then you hit the spiral and you can pull that apart with your fingers,” she explained as she expertly dissected her pepperoni roll — years of muscle memory coming back into play.
With the pepperoni safely removed, she took a bite of the cheesy bread that was left.
“It’s so delicious,” she said. “That is solid cheese.”
Memory is a funny thing.
The Kanawha County Schools’ pepperoni roll is beloved by generations of school kids. And between me and the folks at the Kanawha County Board of Education, we probably talked to dozens of people trying to track down its origins.
And the best we could come up with was a hazy timeline that puts us somewhere in the early to late 80s, and a plausible — but not exactly conclusive — story about a school that ran out of pizza subs one day.
This whole story unfolded within recent living memory, and this is the best we can do.
And yet, Humphrey and Bragg and Carowick have these vivid memories that all came flooding back with a single bite.
“I’m 34 years old and I’m sitting here talking to you about pepperoni rolls, because it’s had such a presence in my life,” Humphrey said. “I don’t have very fond memories of school, but I do have fond memories of school pepperoni rolls. That seems kind of silly, but it’s true.”
This story is part of the Inside Appalachia Folkways Reporting Project, a partnership with West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s Inside Appalachia and the Folklife Program of the West Virginia Humanities Council.
The Folkways Reporting Project is made possible in part with support from Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies to the West Virginia Public Broadcasting Foundation. Subscribe to the podcast to hear more stories of Appalachian folklife, arts and culture.