|Ah, the Sweet Smell of Spring|
April 30, 2003
"WELCOME Spring!" said the sign at the Shell station down the road, and Mother Nature was certainly doing her part. The redbud trees were already wearing their gaudy magenta cloaks, and the first tiny white blossoms were making their appearance on the bare branches of the wild dogwoods.
Fishermen in waders stood in the rushing, rock-strewn Cherry River and other nearby streams, reeling in brook trout. In the 909,000-acre Monongahela National Forest, which encompasses much of the Allegheny Mountains here in central West Virginia, bears and foxes and bobcats were on the prowl.
But for Richwood, a hard-bitten little town of 2,800, as for many other Appalachian mountain communities, April is about something else: digging and eating native leeks called ramps, which grow on the floor of the dense hardwood forest. They announce the arrival of spring as boldly and brassily as front-row trombones herald the arrival of a marching band. Sharp and garlicky in flavor, they can be off-puttingly smelly when raw, but in these parts, people have been avidly consuming them since pioneer days, when they provided a welcome relief from the long, severe winters without fresh fruits or vegetables.
The rite of spring in Richwood is the Ramp Feed, a midday meal served in the high school cafeteria to as many as 1,200 people. This year, for the 65th annual event, the parking lot was filled with cars from all over the state, as well as Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana and Maryland, despite the fact that rival feeds took place in Helvetia and Elkins on exactly the same day, April 26.
Clog dancers from Kentucky entertained in the gymnasium, 91-year-old Libby Deitz sold her homemade jam, and all manner of people waited in line to eat — teenagers, an ancient mountain man with a long white beard, a pair of Gen Xers pushing a stroller. For $10, each diner got a plastic foam box with a tangle of gray-green cooked ramps, a hunk of cornbread, several strips of bacon, a slab of country ham, a mound of baked beans (decanted from the tin and fortified with ham and bacon drippings), spicy potato wedges and a piece of cake.
Not exactly a cardiologist's dream, I admit, but filling. Very filling.
In the school kitchen, Don McClung, 68, a retired coal miner, cooked batch after batch of ramps, a ton in all, in a big rectangular kettle. The process was simple: a ladle of bacon grease went in first, then 60 to 70 pounds of ramps, which sizzled for a bit in the fat and then steamed in their own liquid. Each batch cooked, tightly covered, for 50 minutes over low heat.
The ramps had been dug by dozens of townspeople, who were paid $1 a pound for the fruits of their labor, and made ready for the pot by a crew who spent three weeks at the firehouse, sorting, washing, rewashing, trimming and freezing.
Mr. McClung put in an eight-hour shift on Friday and a nine-hour shift on Saturday, wearing a jaunty green-and-white cap. When he finished, he said, he and the other volunteer cooks would have raised $4,000 or $5,000 for the local Chamber of Commerce, of which he is the president. But his skin, hair, shirt and jeans would be saturated with the pungent smell of ramps, he said, so he would "head for home to take a long shower and change clothes."
Patricia Bunting, Mr. McClung's 44-year-old daughter, who served as his sous chef, wore an apron emblazoned with the words "King of Stink." She said she had never tasted a ramp. When I asked why, she replied, "I don't want to smell bad."
RAMPS — Allium tricoccum — are members of the same robustly flavored family as chives, leeks, garlic, scallions and onions.
The origin of the name is in dispute. Most authorities, including the Department of Agriculture, consider "ramp" a shortened form of "ramson," which is an old name for the European counterpart of the ramp, Allium ursinum or bear garlic. "Ramson" is thought by some to come from the Old English word for wild leeks, hramsen, and by others, of a more romantic cast of mind, to denote "son of ram," Aries being the sign under which ramps appear.
Ramps emerge from the ground with rolled-up, quill-like foliage, which develops into flat, smooth, sword-shape leaves, a rich green in color, with a small bulb at the bottom. They are tender when eaten quite young, about the size of a small scallion.
Clumps of a dozen, a hundred or a thousand dot the forest. Mountain folk dig them for the family table and to sell at roadside stands, so energetically that environmentalists worry that they may disappear. Last year, alarmed by a declining ramp population, authorities at Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina and Tennessee banned ramp-digging.
Glen Facemire, a retired postman, grows ramps from seed at his farm near Richwood. Using a method he developed, it takes six or even seven years, he said, for seeds taken from flowers that appear in July or August to produce ramps once they are planted. He sells fresh ramps in season and a number of ramp products on his Web site (www.rampfarm.com) and at farm shops throughout the region.
For the first white men who came to the mountains, ramps supplied not only an initial taste of spring but also vital protection against rickets, though the settlers probably did not know it. According to Earl L. Core, a distinguished botanist who taught for decades at West Virginia University, ramps contain nutritionally significant quantities of ascorbic acid, or vitamin C.
Nowadays, the appeal of ramps for Richwood lies in tradition, in clan bonding at ramp festivals and, especially for men, in the sheer delight of tramping in the woods.
An old maxim holds that "ramps are not for ladies or those who court them." I must admit that my wife, Betsey, a lowlander and a woman of delicate sensibilities, found the smell of the Ramp Feed far too much to take, and I suppose that eating lots of raw ramps would give any man or woman an industrial-strength case of halitosis, beyond the power of Listerine to cure.
Eleanor Mailloux, one of the guiding spirits of the ramp feed in Helvetia, a mountain hamlet founded in 1869 by Swiss immigrants, said she and her friends polished off plates of ramps when they didn't want to spend the day at school. The teacher would send them home in self-defense.
I myself judged Mr. McClung's ramps tasty enough, if a bit overpowered by the bacon grease, and not much more evil-smelling than a ripe Limburger or Maroilles. But to my no doubt excessively effete taste, the ramp dishes we tasted elsewhere were the real eye-openers.
FORTY years ago, when the great American forager Euell Gibbons lauded ramps as "the sweetest and best of the wild onions," they were strictly a backwoods enthusiasm. But ramps have gone uptown. "We've been eating them as food, not as a delicacy," Mr. Facemire told me. "It's amazing to see our simple old hillbilly tidbits appreciated by little blue-haired ladies."
At the Inn at Little Washington in Washington, Va., Patrick O'Connell, the highly inventive chef and co-owner, uses ramps in vichyssoise, with scrambled eggs and smoked salmon, and as a flavoring in a delicate custard he serves with spring lamb. He often adds them to his own late-night snack of choice — spaghetti dressed with olive oil, pine nuts, morels and Parmesan.
"Ramp season coincides with morel season," Mr. O'Connell said, "and the two pair beautifully" — as he demonstrated in an irresistible cracker-crust pizza topped with a shallot fondue and melted fontina cheese, plus plump morels and frizzled ramp strips.
Some people object to eating ramps, he conceded, fearing the consequences. But ramps can be tamed by blanching them before grilling them, as Mr. O'Connell does for the inn's subtle but richly aromatic pot-au-feu of beef and chicken, where a whole ramp joins turnips and other vegetables.
At the storied Greenbrier resort, in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va., Peter Timmins, the executive chef, incorporates ramps in a number of springtime dishes, including tartlets with crab meat and Virginia ham as well as a flan made with local goat cheese. "Everything but rice pudding," he said.
We ate his succulent hot-smoked trout with asparagus, perched on a hill of ramp-studded grits. The ramps added a peppery, earthy, mysterious taste to the dish, vaguely reminiscent of dandelion greens, highlighting without obscuring the other flavors.
"When I came back here in 1999," said Mr. Timmins, a Dubliner, "I was looking at huge transportation bills for ahi tuna, from Hawaii. `What's wrong with good old trout?' I asked myself. I wanted that sense of place. Same thing with ramps. They're well worth eating, from a culinary perspective, with a unique flavor, even if raw ramps can make the kitchen smell like a bus in Rome on a hot summer afternoon."
Is wild camas next?