The aromas rushing through my car window at the drive-through of the Donut Shop in Buckhannon, West Virginia, were a heady mash-up of late-night pizza and early-morning bakery. I had planned to drive to a nearby scenic overlook to eat my pepperoni rolls, but I never made it out of the parking lot. Instead, I tore straight into the bag, pleased to see drips of red grease on the wrappers—a sure sign that the rolls were generously filled and wouldn’t be dry. The first bite was burn-my-whistle hot. I didn’t care, although after things cooled a bit, I was better able to appreciate how the salty, tangy, minced pepperoni nestled into the pillowy bread. The second one—called a pizza roll because it contains peppers and a ribbon of red sauce—was maybe even better.
Pepperoni rolls are a favorite in West Virginia, so beloved that they were recently nominated as an official state food. At their most basic, they’re nothing more than pepperoni baked inside bread. But different bakers add their own touches, such as cheese and pickled peppers, creating regional loyalties that are deep and unwavering. The rolls were created almost a hundred years ago by the Country Club Bakery in Fairmont, and designed especially for coal miners, many of whom were Italian immigrants, who needed a filling, satisfying meal that could be carried underground in lunch buckets.
About two blocks from the Donut Shop is Fish Hawk Acres, a food market where you can select imported Italian pasta or pick up a pound of Ground Hog pork breakfast sausage, a family recipe whose name winks (and eye-rolls) at the assumption that hillbillies eat groundhogs and other lesser mammals. I hadn’t intended to buy pepperoni rolls, but then I saw a man stride in for one—not his first that day, he confided, and perhaps not his last.
He tossed his necktie over his shoulder to keep it safe from crumbs before tucking in. I added a roll to my lunch order. It was the size of a fist, but the dough was as tender and buttery as brioche. The pepperoni was finely chopped (although other bakers use long sticks or thin slices) and included cheese and peppers, both sweet and hot. It was served at room temperature, miner-style.
I munched on leftover pepperoni rolls for the next two days as I continued to hike and explore, and they never faltered or faded from deliciousness, a testament to ingenious Appalachian cooks who can make a moveable feast out of next to nothing.
I went to West Virginia in search of Appalachian food, old and new. I’m a food writer and cook who grew up in a different part of the Appalachian Mountains—in North Carolina, a few miles from the Tennessee and Virginia borders, a place that hasn’t been my address in ages but will always be home. I’d never spent any real time in West Virginia, the only state that sits completely within the mountains, so I arrived with both a newcomer’s curiosity and an old hand’s familiarity. I aimed to find the vernacular cooking of West Virginia, and I was confident that I’d know it when I tasted it with my native Appalachian tongue.
Over the course of eight days I drove 1,148 miles, hiked a few dozen more, and crossed a river in a boat that skipped along the water like a stone. Yet I covered only a sliver of a stunningly beautiful state that feels remote, but is within a day’s drive of roughly 40 percent of the U.S. population. (It’s also home to our newest national park, the New River Gorge National Park & Preserve.) Most of the time I just followed my nose, guided by what the locals said they like to eat.
These stories are the souvenir postcards I wrote about what tasted true to me.
The restaurant 1010 Bridge sits on a hillside that feels like charming downtown Charleston’s upper balcony. This state capital seemed bustling compared with the tiny towns I’d driven through on the way, but has just under 50,000 residents.
The comfortable dining room was full in the middle of a workweek, a mix of people who were there for special occasions and those who were just there because it was Wednesday and they were hungry. Aaron and Marie Clark manage the front of the house, while chef Paul Smith, who’s a celebrity in these parts, holds sway in the kitchen.
Throughout my trip, I noticed two types of restaurant menus: those that want you to get a pinpoint-specific taste of that place, and those that want you to understand that their chefs can cook as well as chefs anywhere in the country. At 1010 Bridge, those strategies aren’t mutually exclusive.
The first thing I devoured was a bowl of guacamole studded with finely chopped boiled egg, as found in Colombia and El Salvador, and topped with a spoonful of vibrant pickled-ramp pico de gallo. Chunky and piquant, it was everything I wanted, but not at all what I expected, and it recalibrated my idea of what guacamole can be. That’s the thing about eating in West Virginia, and about touring this gorgeous state in general. Too many people come with preconceived (read: not great) notions that make them find only what they expect. It’s wiser to let what we find reset our expectations.
I was smitten with the risotto carbonara. The creamy rice was topped with a silky sous vide egg and a smattering of crisp lardons and fried shallots under a topknot of bright-green garden-pea compound butter, a tangle of pea tendrils, and a generous dusting of salt-cured egg yolks that looked like marigold pollen.
The evening’s vegan entrée (and let me be clear, vegans can eat well in West Virginia) was a savory tarte Tatin. A crisp puff pastry nest held a medley of roasted vegetables drizzled with an agrodolce-style apple-cider glaze and bold, peppery olive oil so good I had to ask where it came from. Turns out Villa DiTrapano olive oil is made by a family who immigrated to Charleston a couple of generations back but kept their estate near the Mediterranean, in Italy’s Lepini Mountains. They now ship crates of their namesake oil home to sell.
The Clarks describe 1010 Bridge’s ever-changing seasonal menu as “Appalachian cuisine with Lowcountry influence,” so there are fresh seafood choices, but a steak dinner never goes out of rotation. West Virginia is beef country, with Black Angus cattle dotting the hillsides. The well-seasoned and judiciously sauced steak is teres major, an underappreciated cut that butchers once kept for themselves. Chef Paul calls it the 1010 cut because it’s unfamiliar to many diners and, let’s be honest, teres major sounds more like a constellation spotted by the state’s Green Bank Telescope.
The service at 1010 Bridge was as hospitable as the food, but that’s what I experienced everywhere, from a roadside stand operated off the back of a lowered tailgate to this white-tablecloth restaurant in a tony neighborhood. I didn’t meet a soul who wasn’t proud of what they served.
The long wooden troughs looked as though they were filled with melting snow, which would make sense in West Virginia, but the rustling of the rakes through the sparkling crystals suggested otherwise. The humid air inside the evaporation room smelled like the ocean. To harvest sea salt in a landlocked state sounds like something from an ancient riddle, but that’s the story of J.Q. Dickinson Salt-Works, located a short drive downriver from Charleston in Malden. When this section of the Appalachian Mountains rose up some 400 to 600 million years ago, it trapped beneath it the Iapetus Ocean, an untouched sea older than the Atlantic. Starting with the Native Americans, people have come to this spot in the Kanawha Valley to pump out brine and make pristine salt.
These days the business is in the able…