Friday, October 11, 2013

“Italian Bread in My Head”

c. 2013 Rod Ice
All rights reserved

The advent of vacation days usually means visiting my parents in northern West Virginia. They live in a small community southeast of Clarksburg.
While in the area, I usually stop at the Kroger store in Bridgeport, off of Route 79. Pausing here evokes memories of the bygone era when this national grocery chain, based in Cincinnati, had many locations near Geauga County.
A favorite treat at this store has always been Abruzzino’s Sliced Giant Italian Bread. The loaf is 18 ounces of delightful, doughy deliciousness. With a substantial crust, chewy interior and flour garnish, the bread offers a culinary experience that could only be matched by a trip to Italy.
Another popular product of this bakery are pepperoni rolls, offered plain or with a variety of cheeses.
In yonder days I would never have believed that WV was an area blessed with people of Italian heritage. I associated them more with northern cities in Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York. But over the years, I discovered that many such folk populated the state. Products with names like Annunzio’s, Oliverio and Brunetti’s were common sights in local stores.
After my most recent visit to Mountaineer country, I decided to do some research on the bread I had purchased. Information on the package itself was minimal in character. Nothing more than “Abruzzino’s Italian Bakery, Gypsy, WV 26361.” So my quest had to move forward with little knowledge for guidance.
Multiple entries on the Internet repeated this line of text, but offered nothing else. I felt stymied in the hunt for details.
Yet unexpectedly, links appeared to stories about the origin of Italian-style pepperoni rolls and bread. With fascination, I read a story in the New York Times that spoke about Mediterranean immigrants who worked the mines in West Virginia. The 2009 piece was called “Fast Food Before Fast Food” by John T. Edge:

“West Virginians recognize the pepperoni rolls as a vestige of the state’s bituminous coal mining industry, which, in the early years of the 20th century, before mechanization reduced the need for manual labor, recruited Italian immigrants to do extraction work with dynamite and pickax.
In 1900, West Virginia was home to more native-born citizens than any other state. But, as the coal industry boomed and labor needs surged, that changed. Coal companies sought, as one historian put it, ‘a more docile, controllable work force than their American-born counterparts.’
They did not get what they bargained for. Italian immigrants were just as inclined, if not more so, toward union affiliation and action.
By 1915, there were more Italian laborers than any of the other 20-plus nationalities working the coal fields. Out of that cauldron of labor strife and self-definition came a hybridized food that owed as much to West Virginia as it did to Calabria, the region from which so many of the Italian immigrants came.”

I never considered that this ubiquitous part of Appalachian culture had a truly foreign parentage. Like well-garnished frankfurters and sausage gravy with biscuits, it seemed undeniably familiar. In Foodland stores, Kroger and Shop & Save, these tasty treats were everywhere when I visited family members south of the Ohio River.
The West Virginia Division of Culture and History offered further explanation:

“The Mountain State is the bona fide birthplace of one beloved food item that has become much more familiar, in and out of the state, than these other homegrown delicacies — the pepperoni roll.
The concept is culinary simplicity — bread dough wrapped around pepperoni. And no one seems to dispute that its inventor was Giuseppe (Joseph) Argiro [pronounced AR-juh-row], who came from Calabria, Italy, in 1920 to work in the Clarksburg-area coal mines.
When he first traveled to America, Guiseppe Argiro left his pregnant wife, Teresa, behind. Within a few years, he had earned enough money to return to Italy and bring his wife and young son back with him to Clarksburg. Guiseppe soon left the mines and moved his growing family to Fairmont, where he started a soda pop bottling business. Then, in 1927, he opened People’s Bakery. The bakery was located on Robinson Street, and the family lived in the building behind it.
The inventive Argiro got the idea for the pepperoni roll directly from his experiences in the mines. A common lunch for immigrant miners, according to Giuseppe’s younger son, Frank Argiro, consisted of ‘a slab of bread, a chunk of pepperoni, and a bucket of water.’ At some point between 1927 and 1938 — nobody seems to know exactly when — Giuseppe began placing the spicy pepperoni within the bread, and the pepperoni roll was born.”

Jeanne Mozier’s “Way Out in West Virginia: A Must Have Guide to the Oddities and Wonders of the Mountain State” also documents Argiro’s invention of this working-class delicacy.
In current terms, the pepperoni roll holds great popularity in places like Geauga County. So there is no aura of strangeness to the snack. But reading about its invention made me smile.
Still, I yearned for homemade Italian bread.
A quick check for local products of this kind yielded the name of the B Sweet Baking Company, from Chagrin Falls. A participant in the Geauga Fresh Farmers Market.
Only one regret lingered after my journey in cyberspace... I still knew almost nothing about Abruzzino’s.
Perhaps that revelation would come on another day.

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