Thursday, January 24, 2013
Like both of my grandfathers before him, my father spent decades as a coal miner in the hills of Western Pennsylvania. Life underground was dirty and dangerous. My mother and my grandmothers were well-aware of the daily hazards of the mines; they chose to channel the energy of their worries into preparing enormous amounts of food.
Every day before my dad left for work, my mom sent him away with two things: a special goodbye litany that was both a protective prayer and whispered words of love, and his lunch bucket, filled to the brim with the best of the family's cupboard. This lunch bucket was covered in worn, yet still sparkly, reflective stickers and held a special sort of magic for my sister and me. It was always full of the tastiest snacks and special treats. My sister and I knew that we might get one or two of those coveted items tucked into our own cartoon-covered lunchboxes, but Dad definitely had first pick of the good stuff. When we were lucky, there were leftovers when he came home, sometimes a stick of gum or a bag of cookies. But the Holy Grail of lunch was always a homemade pepperoni roll.
To me, pepperoni rolls were as much a part of childhood lunches as a PB&J. The lunch ladies at school served them on special days, with a side of greasy potato chips. Instead of a bake sale, each mom contributed two dozen to be sold for a sports team's fundraisers. Every gas station or grocery store sold their own version. They were all built around the same simple premise: pepperoni baked into white-bread rolls. But, the catch was that every mom made them a bit differently. Some added a bit of cheese (but never sauce). Some used long, thin rods of pepperoni instead of sliced. Some made them tiny and dense; others were large and fluffy. Of course, every kid knew the truth - your own mom's were the best.
I didn't think much about the history or meaning behind my beloved pepperoni rolls until I moved to Michigan for graduate school. I was shocked to learn that my new friends had never tasted one, and I didn't understand how they had made it through childhood without them. It wasn't until I made my first trip to Northern Michigan that I began to understand just how much local industry shapes what we eat and what we build into our own regional traditions. It turned out that the people of Northern Michigan had their own special variation of what I already knew and loved: the pasty.
While pasties are more robust and complex than the simple pepperoni roll (incorporating potatoes, rutabaga, and other delicious veggies), pasties got their start as mining food, brought by Cornish copper miners into Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Pepperoni rolls were simply a more modern American version, created in northern West Virginia by Italian immigrants who were working in the area's coal mines. Either way, these hearty, handheld meals were filling and satisfying for the fathers, uncles, and brothers who were facing the most brutal of working conditions, and a way for mothers, aunts, and sisters to send love and care with them each day.
When he retired, I begged my dad for that old lunch bucket. It sits in my warm, easy home office, reminding me of the sacrifices Dad made for our family. Just the same, although I don't make them often, biting into a fresh pepperoni roll still evokes those happy memories of sitting in Mom's warm kitchen and digging through Dad's lunch bucket, hoping to find delicious extras to swipe. Now I am the one tucking those fresh rolls into a lunchbox (although, this time, made of pink canvas instead of hard metal), trying to send my love and protection through meat baked into bread.
Make Your Own Pepperoni Rolls:
If you've made it this far, you realize already that these are not New Year's Diet Austerity Food. The recipe is simple. Use your favorite white bread dough recipe. (In an effort to keep up with our busy family, my mom usually just used frozen bread dough.) I used my breadmaker to prepare the dough, using the Butter Rolls recipe that came with my machine.
Prepare (or thaw!) your dough, letting it rise completely. Punch it down, and divide into smaller roll-sized dough balls, as suitable for your recipe. (A single loaf of frozen bread dough will make eight rolls. The Butter Rolls recipe will make about a dozen.)
Flatten each roll into a disc shape, and place roughly six overlapping slices of pepperoni on the surface.
Starting on one side, roll the dough jelly-roll-style until complete.
Tuck the two ends under a bit, and place the roll on a greased or parchment-covered cookie sheet, seam side down. Repeat with all of the other dough balls.
Coat all of the rolls with butter or cooking spray, then allow to rise a second time. Bake at 350 degrees (F) for approximately 30 minutes, until golden brown. Remove from oven and hit with another round of butter, just for good measure. Do not overbake; they are best squishy. If they leave a little orangey greasiness behind, you did it right.
[Do as I say, not as I did: If you place rolls closer together on a smaller cookie sheet, they will all grow together a bit, helping them to raise up, rather than spread out. I forgot to do this, ending up with flatter rolls than I intended. My family wolfed them down tonight anyway, despite my protestations that they didn't turn out right.]
But what about those pasties?
If all of this talk of mining food has you wishing for the Michigan option, here are some sources to get you moving in more of a pasty direction:
- In Traverse City: Cousin Jenny's at the corner of S. Union and State or Barbara Jean's Pasties, available at the Farmer's Market at the Mercato or at Oryana
- Michigan Tech's collection of pasty recipes
- Directory of pasty restaurants in the U.P. via exploringthenorth.com
- Upper Michigan pasty recipe from food.com
- Online ordering!
- Restaurant recommendations from chowhound.com
- The Awesome Mitten has a bit to say about pasties, including a new series reviewing Pretty Awesome Pasties at area restaurants