As most folks know, I grew up in West Virginia, in the heart of Appalachia.
This time of year, in the early spring, my heart instinctively yearns for the mountains, and my feet get to itchin’ and I want to go clambering around through hilly woodlands. My fingers long to dig the cool red clay soil in search of the first wild harvest food: ramps.
Ramps, or wild leeks, (Allium tricoccum for all you botanists and Latin speakers out there), are a plant native to the Appalachian region. They range all the way north to Novia Scotia down south to Georgia, and will grow in damp woodland soils as far west as Iowa and Minnesota. (And no, neither Iowa nor Minnesota are considered part of Appalachia–but the ramp doesn’t just associate with hillbillies–it goes whither it will wander.) They are a true allium, which makes it part of the lily family, and is related to leeks, onions, garlic, chives and a bunch of really pretty flowers.
The leaves, which are lance-shaped and brilliant emerald green, and the stalks, which swell underground into small bulb shapes without making true bulbs, are both edible, though the leaves are more strongly flavored than the stalks. They sprout up out of the still cool woodland soil in damp areas near springs and streams, climbing slopes and carpeting bottomlands with thick clumps in the early spring months.
The name, “ramp,” is from “ramson,” which is a survival of archaic British dialect, which is one of the roots of Appalachian dialect that peppers the speech of folks native to that region. Apparently, in the British Isles, another wild allium, allium ursinum, grows unfettered by cultivation, and is colloquially called a ramsen or ramson. Some say that the term comes from “Ram’s son,” which indicates that it sprouts during the sign of Aries the ram, but I prefer the theory that it comes from the Old English plural form of “hramsa, ” which indicated a wild garlic. When the English, Welsh and Scots settled the Appalachian mountains, they found a familiar plant growing, and used their own familiar name for it, much as they named the red-breasted thrush of North America after their very own robin redbreast.
Some folks call them ramsons to this day, while others call them “ramscallions–” a name which I like not only because it likens them to another non-bulb producing allium which I use often, the scallion, but because it sounds like one of my favorite words, “rapscallion,” which is an archaic form of “rascal.” I like to think of ramps as wily, rascally little leeks whose beauty belie their strong flavor and even stronger odor.
Now seems to be a good time to mention the smell of my beloved ramps.
They are stinky wee beasties, and if you eat them, particularly raw, they will make you stink, too.
The scent of them is so strong, it gets into your bloodstream, and into your sweat. Your breath and person will smell very strongly for a couple of days after you eat a substantial amount of ramps. The old hillfolk always said that was proof of its power as a spring tonic and blood cleanser, but these days, the smell is viewed with a less tolerant eye. School systems in West Virginia outlaw thier students from either bringing ramps to school or eating them and coming to school; I got in trouble for bringing some for my city friends to try after a weekend out foraging in the southern mountains. I didn’t get suspended or anything, just a stern-talking to. I guess it was okay–none of my friends much cared for them, anyway.
When I was a kid, we used to make pilgrimages to the southern mountains, down in Nicholas, Greenbriar and Fayette counties in March, to go “ramp hunting.” This is the origin of my itchy feet and tingling fingers right about this time every year. Just yesterday was Richwood West Virginia’s “Ramp Festival.”
I must have instinctively known that, because while I was packing boxes I had a sudden longing for the woods, and the smell of damp earth and the taste of a freshly dug up ramp.
We’d go with my aunt and uncle and their three kids, and they would let us loose in the woods above the beautiful Greenbriar river, and we’d go clambering up steep hills, our eyes glued to the sometimes knee-deep leaf litter, looking for clumps of green. When we’d find them, we’d fall to our knees and industriously dig with screwdrivers we kept in our back pockets, and pull the beautiful plants whole from the earth and tuck them into the grocery bags we carried. We were taught to always leave one third of the clump behind so it could keep growing and make more ramps for next year, and we’d solemnly obey this injunction, knowing that our grandfather practiced the same care in culling his cattle herd and harvesting his black walnuts.
We’d end up with pounds of the things, piled up in paper bags, which we’d have to carry out of the woods and back to the car, where we would have to drive for hours to get back to Mom’s house, where she would then cook us a feast with our bounty.
Fried potatoes with ramps is a classic, though she always had a pot of pinto beans ready to heat up. Those we’d eat with raw chopped ramps right on top (instead of the usual raw onions), with a side of cornbread. The best thing she’d have ready, though was a big bowl of her potato salad–both sides of our family acknowledges that my Mom makes the best damned potato salad anyone has ever had. She’d make it by the roasting pan full for family gatherings and after a session of “ramp hunting,” she’d have a punchbowl of it ready, and would add freshly chopped ramps to it and mix it all in with her softly tanned, long-fingered hands.
I am lucky enough to have ramps growing in the woods that surround this house in Pataskala. I found that out on my first ramble through the forest after we moved here four years ago, in May. I had clambered down the trail into the soggy bottomland next to our creek, and saw a familiar sight–a clump of big, lance-shaped leaves standing proudly out among a bunch of blooming violets.
Squealing with delight, I fell upon them and dug them up with my bare hands, and wiping the garnet-colored stalks on my jeans, inhaled three. The pungent flavor struck my sinuses with the force of a fastball that slipped past the catcher’s mitt, and I started salivating like a coonhound on a hot trail. Dancing around, I probably looked like a demented jackrabbit, but I didn’t care. Forging up the creek, I crossed the rain-swollen stream by way of a fallen tree, and found more patches dotting the ravine slopes. Knowing it was near the end of the season, I picked a few and dragged them back to the house, to show to Zak, whom I reckoned had never seen nor heard of ramps before.
Being an aficionado of garlic, Zak liked the flavor immediately, and after cleaning my catch, I added them to the lamb stew we had for supper, and we feasted royally, though, of course, we smelled funky the next day.
The next year, I sought them out earlier, and found them coming up in full force by mid-April. Here in central Ohio, it is a good bit cooler than even the mountainous regions of southern West Virginia, so our season starts much later.
However, catching them just as they came up showed me just how big the ramp population was in our woods–they were everywhere, painting broad swaths of green against the crackling brown leaves on the woodland floor. There were thousands of them.
So, I took to harvesting them, and using them in whatever I happened to be cooking at the time.
I discovered that not only are they delicious in traditional Appalachian foods like my Mom makes, but they are amazing when cooked in Chinese foods.
I added them to stir fries. I added them to red-cooked dishes. I added them to Thai curries, to pad thai, to hot and sour soup and to scallion pancakes.
They were all fantastic.
I added them to potluck dishes like shepherd’s pie and au gratin potatoes with chipotle peppers, and took them to city-friend’s houses. They were a smashing success, and not just among the other transplanted hillfolk who recognized them for what they were and drooled accordingly. It seems that city people have lost a lot of their fear of flavor and are more daring when it comes to trying new things that promise a punch to the tastebuds.
(I must add that ramps in recent years have become trendy. It seems that city chefs have heard about them and are clamoring for them and one can find them for sale in some markets in New York City these days. When I was in culinary school back in 1998, I remember watching both Mario Batalli and Curtis Aiken use ramps on their shows within a week of each other. I had to call Mom and let her know that our beloved hillbilly tonic had hit the big time. She was floored.)
So, it is March, and I know that in southern Appalachia, the ramps are already up and are being eaten by the bushel by the lucky hillbillies who can get to them. And my fingers are itching to dig.
But, around here, I have to wait another month or so for our little green beauties to start showing their pretty foliage. By then, we will have moved to the new house. I console myself with the knowledge that we will have to come back here to dig up some of our perennials we are transplanting from the garden here to the new place, and I can sneak off to the woods and forage some ramps for us to take home.
We do have a little patch of trees at our new house, that is part of string of woods that winds through the houses in the hills surrounding Athens. I am thinking that I might try and transplant some ramps out there, and see if I can convince them to take root and multiply so I can continue my spring ritual of just hopping outside and picking some goodness from the ground and cooking it. I bet it will work; there are even some folks researching how to cultivate ramps for commercial production, and they have had some success so long as they keep the habitat (below trees in rich, damp soil) right.
So, having written all of this, I do hope that folks will give ramps a try if you can find them.
Though, do remember, they are stinky rascals, and they will leave their scent behind for a while.
But it is a small price to pay for such a delicious kick of flavor.
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