It's a 10-hour flight from Atlanta to Honolulu, so when Jeannie and Joe Scheirman packed for a Hawaiian vacation celebrating their 38th anniversary, the twice-over Charlestonians (they're natives of Charleston, W.Va.) made room in their carry-ons for snacks.
“Pepperoni rolls sustained us,” Jeannie Scheirman says proudly.
The iconic pepperoni roll – a meat-filled yeasty bread developed nearly a century ago as a coal miners' lunch – is still hard to find beyond West Virginia. In Charleston, the Pep Rolls food cart is working to remedy the local deficit, but the snack's acolytes living beyond Appalachia are usually forced to mail-order or bake rolls when they want them. Last Saturday, West Virginia University's Lowcountry alumni club staged its seventh annual contest to determine who bakes them best.
Submissions from nine Mountaineers represented the spectrum of roll design: There were rolls with sliced pepperoni and stick pepperoni; unseasoned rolls and rolls bedecked with extra herbs; rolls oozing with cheese and rolls with negligible cheese.
When the roll buffet was declared open so attendees could file their votes, the gathered alumni refrained from the kind of frivolity associated with the tailgates where pepperoni rolls are considered essential. Instead, they chewed slowly and quietly, gauging grease and assessing bread quality.
“This year, we have pizza dough,” said campground host Fred Coleman, recounting last year's struggles to secure the right dough. Even with backup dough, Coleman and his wife, Donna — who split their time between James Island and Parkersburg, W. Va. — still managed to defend their title. Donna Coleman attributes their previous successes partly to stick pepperoni, an ingredient at the center of roll debates about tradition and surface area.
“You have to cut it yourself,” she explains. “Nobody will do it for you.”
For this year's competition, the Colemans prepared standard rolls; rolls with pepperjack cheese and rolls goosed with parmesan and garlic.
“That's a key ingredient,” Fred Coleman said, starting to explain how their son, a professional chef, showed them how to tame the garlic flavor by making a confit.
Donna Coleman squirmed: “Every roll has a secret ingredient,” she said conclusively.