Mountain Mama Mia

JEFF FITZGERALD (this article was first published August 2, 2012)


Miners’ children playing. U.S. Coal and Coke Company, Gary Mines, Gary, McDowell County, West Virginia; 1946, photographed by Russell Lee; via Wikimedia Commons.


When one thinks about the hardscrabble coalfields of southern West Virginia, the first thought that comes to mind is usually not Italian food. Unless one is eating Italian food while reading an article, such as this one, about the hardscrabble coalfields of southern West Virginia.  Because why wouldn’t you? Everyone likes Italian food, and many people enjoy articles about folks who generally have it worse than they do. It’s like a double dose of comfort.

What I’m saying is this…

When West Virginia asserted its independence from Virginia in 1863, mostly because  it was tired of being known as Virginia’s rustic backyard, it remained one of the most homogeneous[1] states in the Union throughout the rest of the 19th century. While most of Appalachia had been populated by Scot-Irish settlers, various other groups had managed to find their way through the region by the dawn of the 20th century. Germans and Welsh immigrants settled to the north in Pennsylvania , while German-speaking Swiss found their way to Kentucky and Tennessee to the south. But the rough and seemingly useless mountains of the southern part of West Virginia were largely unaffected by outside influence, until the discovery of vast amounts of exceptionally useful coal. This brought the railroads into the hills and hollers to take that coal to the marketplace and thus opened up one of the last places in America where people still had sixteen or so kids just out of sheer boredom.

The problem was that mining and moving large amounts of coal required manpower, which was not abundant in the rough and sparsely populated hills. Everyone who wanted to live there was already there, and they tended to be both self-sufficient and well-armed. And at the turn of the 20th century, most otherwise untethered Americans were heading to the still-somewhat-wild West, to wait patiently for the motion picture industry that everyone was certain would spring up in the wake of Thomas Edison’s invention of the $8 tub of popcorn.

Young people walking on the railroad ties in Fireco, WV (near Beckley). In old coal mining communities, the railroads went through the center of towns. It was the railroads which made it possible to ship out the coal, the reason the towns were built. Fireco declined as the mines gave out. Photograph by Jack Corn, 1974.

The answer, then, was to look abroad. Europe was staggering towards a period of cataclysmic social and economic upheaval that would result in two World Wars and a seemingly endless succession of oddly-mustachioed dictators[2]. Immigrants from Italy, many already experienced miners, found their way to the Mountain State to escape the disintegrating conditions of their homeland. (Luck for them, they also avoided the future embarrassment of having to ride around on ridiculous little Vespas[3].)

Most of the influx into the coalfields came from southern provinces in Italy; predominantly Calabria, Campania, and Sicily. Campania is the province from which comes the most familiar red sauce Italian dishes, the ones most Americans associate with Italian food. Southern Italians brought a love of pork and fresh vegetables, which fit in perfectly with the native diet. Despite the initial culture shock, they found more familiar than foreign about their new home. Cornbread is not all that different from polenta. Guanciale and lardo bear more than a passing resemblance to hog jowl and fatback.

Italians and “hillbillies” were, in a sense, made for each other. Both cultures place a high value on family. Rural West Virginians place as much value on the quantity of food as they do the quality; Italians like to feed people until they say “basta.”  And both view food as the currency of emotion. A happy occasion? Calls for a feast! A sad occasion? Better make some food to take over to the house[4].

Also, both cultures placed a premium on self-reliance. Coal mining, for the man actually doing the work, was not a get-rich-quick scheme. And there were no Walmarts back in the hills in those days[5]. So both the hillbilly and his Italian co-worker fell back on age-old skills like keeping a garden and raising their own pigs and chickens where they could. Abundant wild game augmented the protein component of the diet. Calabrians had long been practiced at preserving their own foods, and the people of Appalachia had all but perfected canning and salt-curing as means of preservation. When all other things were scarce, a full pantry was looked upon as a mark of prosperity.

Cooking of Polenta on a Fogolar, a traditional fire oven (hearth) in Friuli, Italy. Photo by A. Brisighetti, 1930, via Wikimedia Commons.

As Italian immigrants distinguished themselves in all areas of American culture, beginning with the widespread appeal of Joe DiMaggio and Frank Sinatra in the thirties, the general American attitude towards Italians became more accepting (as it had with the previous influx of Irish immigrants in the 19th century). Soldiers who had fought in Sicily during World War II brought back a love for the local cuisines they’d sampled there, and sought out Italian restaurants. That Neapolitan invention, pizza, which had thus far mostly been confined to ethnic enclaves in the industrial Northeast, began to spread out all over this great land and become as American as apple pie[6].

My mother grew up in the 40’s and 50’s in a coal camp called Tams, in Raleigh County, West Virginia. The town no longer exists, it was wholly and solely owned by the coal company and disappeared with the local mine played out. The town was somewhat segregated, both by race and ethnicity, but my mother’s scrapbook from her high school years shows that most of her friends’ last names ended in a vowel, even if she called them “eye-talians” her whole life. Her home cooking, and her general philosophy on food, was a unique amalgam of Italian and Appalachian influence. While there was the familiar red sauce component, she also adhered to the shared ideal of making the most out of whatever you had at hand.

This philosophy was in evidence in the cross-cultural improvisation that she developed out of necessity, growing up in a town where the company store would be put to shame by a modern 7-Eleven. The large, juice-heavy locally available tomatoes were no comparison to the dryer, meatier Campanian San Marzanos her neighbors knew from the Old Country. My mother’s spaghetti sauce, ostensibly an approximation of a Bolognese sauce, was nearer in execution to an Italian-seasoned Cincinnati chili. Her lasagna was made with cottage cheese instead of hard-to-find ricotta. I will admit, I still occasionally make it that way just for the warm memory it provides, and to tick off pretentious foodies who refuse to eat even a wafer-thin slice of prosciutto unless provided with notarized documentation and an actual photograph of the acorn-fed hog from Parma that gave his life for it[7].

Growing up, Mom’s homemade pizza was a Saturday night ritual. Spaghetti and lasagna were favorites in the weeknight dinner rotation, as were meatballs (served, as they should be, by themselves in an approximation of a marinara sauce). My aunt, who grew up in New Mexico, couldn’t understand why the only thing my hillbilly coal miner uncle would order in a restaurant was spaghetti. When I was still small enough to sit in the shopping cart, my mother would take me to the grocery store with her and as soon as we got to the cold cuts, would take a twin pack of Hormel pepperoni and give me a chunk to chew on as we shopped[8]. I literally cut my teeth on pepperoni, which may go a long way towards explaining my lifelong loves of cured meats and spicy foods, and why I still experience a reflexive Pavlovian response whenever I pass the cold cuts section in my local Kroger. It may also explain why I occasionally like to put on a sleeveless T-shirt and talk like James Caan as Sonny in The Godfather, but it probably doesn’t.

Richard Hughes, miner, and his family eating.  Panther Red Ash Coal Corporation, Douglas Mine, Panther, McDowell County, West Virginia. Photo by Russell Lee (NARA record: 2489414), 1946, via Wikimedia Commons.

By the early seventies, which is as far back as I can remember, little touches of Italian influence were outwardly visible in Beckley, by now my mother’s de facto hometown, to those looking for them. Calacino’s continued quietly serving pizza and Italian food as they had since 1934. King Tut Drive-In served a marinara and mozzarella topped pizza burger decades before hamburgers became culinary Mad Libs. The first “store-bought” pizza I ever had, a wonderfully thick and greasy bathmat of a heavily Americanized pie, came from a little joint called Capri Pizza. But there were no “Little Italys” to be found, even in a town that was surely big enough for a decent Columbus Day parade or at least a modest shrine to Dean Martin[9].  And certainly not in tiny hamlets like Pineville, Matewan, Coalwood or Boomer, the combined populations of which would not be sufficient to account for everyone who got “clipped” during all six seasons of The Sopranos.

The melding of complementary cultures in the southern coalfields of West Virginia may not have produced as visible an imprint on the landscape as it did other places, but the effects continue to resonate through the lives of those who trace their heritage to that region. I feel it every time I cut up raw garlic on my bowl of brown beans, or instinctively scrutinize the gluten structure of a pizza crust to determine whether or not it’s going to be a decent pie. I feel it when I deliberately bypass my hoard of canned San Marzano tomatoes in favor of a can of Del Monte diced tomatoes to make spaghetti sauce Mom’s way.

Perhaps the most lasting product of the influence of Italian culture in West Virginia is the pepperoni roll, which is widely considered to be the state food. Theoretically a variation of the stromboli, it is in its simplest form nothing but pepperoni wrapped in soft, yeasty dough and baked. It represents a confluence of both the Italian appreciation of simplicity and their artistry with bread and cured meats, and the hillbilly’s deep and abiding love of double-barreled loads of grease and carbs. A match made in (almost) Heaven.


[1] Which probably doesn’t mean what you think it does. Quit giggling.

[2] Don’t forget Franco.

[3] No one looks cool on a scooter. No one.

[4] But for God’s sake, no more potato salad.

[5] Though, oddly enough, there was a Starbucks. And several Subways.

[6] Which is actually British.

[7] His name was Primo. He enjoyed springtime.

[8] This would probably be considered child abuse by today’s standards, but I turned out fine. More or less.


2 thoughts on “Mountain Mama Mia

  1. Pingback: Carry Me Back: Lamenting Foods Missing in Appalachia | OKRA Magazine

  2. Reblogged this on Mountain Mama and commented:
    Rebloging this funny, fanstic and true view of Jeff Fitzgeralds West Viriginas love of “EYE-Talian” food. Thank you Jeff for thinking about what makes our state so wonderful…. really it is its people and their love of food

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