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Notable West Virginians nominate their favorite state foods

By Candace Nelson

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - What should be the Mountain State's signature dish?

The question arose during the recent West Virginia legislative session when a House resolution calling for the pepperoni roll to be named the official state food created a social media sensation before failing to gain traction.

It was a fun debate, though, so we asked notable West Virginians to mull the question.

Pepperoni rolls are popular, sure, but what about the stinky-but-succulent ramp? Or the nutty buckwheat cake? Or the staple food of beans and cornbread?

* Homer Hickam, author of "Rocket Boys," which chronicles his life in Coalwood, McDowell County, was shocked to see pepperoni rolls as the potential state food.

"My wife's reaction to your list:  Ewwww! True, she's from Alabama but has spent a lot of time in West Virginia. Pepperoni rolls? I would think venison would be more appropriate, not that I ever ate it that much growing up," he said.

"My favorite food that Mom served up in Coalwood was potato cakes. Her cornbread was pretty good, too. But wait, after giving it some thought, here's my proposal: Commodity cheese. If you don't know what commodity cheese is, then you're not really a West Virginian."

"We had lots of Italians in Coalwood. One of them I wrote about a lot in 'Sky of Stone' - Johnny Basso. Still, I don't remember ever seeing one pepperoni roll in southern West Virginia. I suspect it's a geographical thing. But I bet EVERYBODY in the state has either eaten commodity cheese or were birthed by parents who did. Have you ever eaten commodity cheese, Candace? It was really very good.

It came in big blocks, bought by the government to support dairy prices and handed out in economically depressed areas.

"People who were eligible got enough for all of us."

Homer Hickam's Vote: Commodity Cheese

* Jeff Kessler, president of the West Virginia Senate, threw his vote in another direction.

"I love pizza. DiCarlo's in particular. Cheese and pepperoni," he said. The difference for him is that cold cheese is thrown on the hot, baked dough and sauce, which melts the provolone atop the square.

Jeff Kessler's Vote: DiCarlo's Pizza

* Newsweek/Daily Beast special correspondent and editor of "Democracy: A Journal of Ideas" Michael Tomasky holds a special place in his heart for the pepperoni roll.

"I'm Italian on my mom's side, so I grew up gobbling down my maternal grandmother's pepperoni rolls by the dozen. I was shocked when I moved away from the state and saw that they didn't exist everywhere," Tomasky said.

"I've since introduced pepperoni rolls to many friends and never had one person say anything other than 'Wow, these are great!' And now, of course, more and more people have discovered them. So I'm all for it. They're the state's greatest export since Jerry West."

Michael Tomasky's Vote: Pepperoni Rolls

* Former governor and current Sen. Joe Manchin echoed Tomasky's sentiment.

"Our beautiful state is so special because we have a great variety of foods and traditions," Manchin said. "Of course, I am very partial to pepperoni rolls and spaghetti and meatballs because these are foods that I grew up with, but I also appreciate and enjoy many other great foods from our state such as hot dogs, pinto beans and cornbread, ramps and apple butter. Indeed, West Virginia has something for everyone to enjoy."

Joe Manchin's Vote: Pepperoni Rolls

* Chuck Yeager, the first pilot to travel faster than sound, can think of a better choice.

"Never heard of pepperoni rolls. Who is making this decision? Only ever had cornbread & buttermilk & leather britches," he said.

For those who don't know, leather britches are beans that are strung together and then hung up to dry. They are then boiled, usually with a ham bone and onion for added flavor.

For more Yeager takes on topical issues, the aviation legend encourages all to visit his website at and his Twitter at @GenChuckYeager.

Chuck Yeager's Vote: Cornbread & Buttermilk & Leather Britches

* Sen. Jay Rockefeller, who helped protect pepperoni roll bakeries from stricter USDA regulations that may have put them out of business in 1987, stands by the pepperoni roll's side. He has even given pepperoni rolls away as Secret Santa gifts to other senators.

"West Virginia has no shortage of culinary treasures - from apple butter and buckwheat cakes, to mealtime staples like beans and cornbread," Rockefeller said. "And I've been to more ramp dinners than I can count. What's great about the pepperoni roll is it is a uniquely West Virginia creation. For that reason, it holds a special place in our hearts. And I'm glad I could play a part in keeping it around."

Jay Rockefeller's Vote: Pepperoni Rolls

* Jessica Lynch, former U.S. Army soldier who served in Iraq during the 2003 invasion, was making pepperoni rolls at the time of the interview.

"We are a big fan of pepperoni rolls in my house. My daughter loves them. My fiance goes nuts for them. I like to make them," Lynch said. "I think it's a cool little back story that they were invented here in West Virginia in Fairmont. I think that's neat."

"I guess my only concern is that we have such a high obesity rate. But I'm definitely a fan of pepperoni rolls."

As far as beans and cornbread? "I'm not a fan, only because that's what we ate all the time was beans and cornbread growing up. It's the poor man's food," she said. "I understand where pepperoni rolls are coming from to be the official food."

Jessica Lynch's Vote: Pepperoni Rolls

* Kent Carper, Kanawha County Commission president, said, "To me, this gives credence to the belief that power in the Legislature is switching to the north. Having said that, what's wrong with ramps? Or cornbread and beans? Ramps are grown almost exclusively here."

"Ramps have become famous now, and they're served all over the country - to restaurants in New York. I realize we have a lot of Italian immigrants in the past, but I can make the argument that beans and cornbread are more indicative of West Virginia culture. I like pepperoni rolls; I eat them; I think they're tasty. Frankly, I wouldn't consider that the food of the state of West Virginia. If this makes Jeopardy, nobody will get it. Black bear, I got it. Rhododendron, I got it."

Kent Carper's Vote: Ramps and Beans & Cornbread

* The Charleston Daily Mail's own Food Guy, Steven Keith, has waxed poetic about pepperoni rolls in his columns over the years.

"As a 'serious food dude,' I should probably be horrified by the prospect of glorifying something as simple as a pepperoni roll. But if done right, man, are they good!" he said.

"And I'm not talking about the ones you get at the local shop-a-minute, but really good ones - fresh-baked and still oven-warm from a bakery in Clarksburg or Fairmont. I know it's not gourmet food, but it's a soul-satisfying snack with a noble history behind it. West Virginia could do a lot worse when it comes to celebrating a state food. Ramps are good also-ran but, hey, they only show up a few months a year. We need a state food that can commit to full-time indulgence!"

Daily Mail Food Guy's Vote: Pepperoni Rolls

* The Tudor's biscuit is also a suggested food to represent the state.

"We are flattered by those comments. If you talk about the food, I don't think you can talk about a brand name. It would have to be a food itself. In that environment, it should be a biscuit. Not Tudor's," said Oshel Craigo, owner of Tudor's Biscuit World.

"It's flattering they'd include us in the mix. There's some merit to the pepperoni roll - it's interesting how food works. No question that pepperoni roll started in Clarksburg-Fairmont area and worked its way across the state. But it's a hard-crusted bread. You can hardly find it in Charleston. It's extremely popular in central West Virginia. Certain regions of West Virginia prefer certain food. We sell hotdogs with slaw. Some areas of the country, it's just unheard of."

"The pepperoni roll was put together for the benefit of coal miners. Miners have a long history in this state - they're a big part. When you look at that together, and talking about a food itself, the pepperoni roll may not be a bad choice. Brown Beans and Cornbread wouldn't be far behind. Biscuits would rank very high - without question. Brown beans and cornbread would be very high. Biscuits would be very, very high. As a kid, my dad had biscuits every day. My mother made them. Homemade - nothing like a homemade biscuit. It's a very wonderful food."

Oshel Craigo's Vote: Biscuits

* Secretary of State Natalie Tennant said, "I will support the pepperoni roll being the state food for many reasons. First off, it originated in West Virginia. It was the ingenuity of a West Virginian - a coal miner. I think that exemplifies what West Virginia is all about."

Tennant, who is from Marion County - home of the pepperoni roll, promotes it whenever she has the chance, including at conferences and visits.

"The thing for me is, you can look to various bakeries and find a pepperoni roll. Tomaro's Bakery and Country Club Bakery might dispute who was first. And in Fairmont, there's a different kind of pepperoni roll - it's Colasessano's, they call theirs a pepperoni bun. They are all awesome."

"I have always promoted all things West Virginia - West Virginia grown, made, created. I think that the pepperoni roll is a great example of that. It's not that I don't promote others. What about ramps? I love ramps. Beans and cornbread - those are all awesome meals that people will want to promote. But the pepperoni roll - people just love them. It makes me proud to say they came from my home county."

Natalie Tennant's Vote: Pepperoni Rolls

Contact writer Candace Nelson at or 304-348-5148. Follow her at


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