Sunday, May 8, 2011


Photo by beautifulcataya via Flickr
When I moved to this part of the world many years ago, I went backpacking that first spring with a college church group that I had joined. We hiked out pretty far that first day, up and down the hills, and spent a very windy night in our tents. I had heard a few comments about "getting to the ramps tomorrow" and figured it was some sort of bridge feature of the trail we were following. The second night was less windy and much more peaceful. Then I woke up. An incredibly pungent aroma drifted through the tent flaps and there was a good bit of commotion and stirring around outside the tent. Now, when I say pungent, I mean that my sinuses were clear and my eyes were watering. I stumbled out of my tent and gasped, "What are you cooking?"

Everyone laughed. They knew I had lived in Texas for several years. They knew ramps don't grow in Texas. It was good sport for them.

Photo by Kari Kilgore via Flickr

Ramps, Allium tricoccum, are a perennial member of the onion family. They look very much like the leeks and green onions you get in the grocery store. They are, in fact, sometimes called wild leek. Or ramson, spring onion, and wild garlic. They grow in dense stands on hillside slopes of the Appalachia Mountains of northeastern United States, over even to Illinois, down to North Carolina, and up into Quebec. Ramps don't grow as- um- rampantly in Quebec as in Appalachia and conservation efforts have begun, even in some of the fringe areas of their US range, such as in Tennessee.

Photo by hbakkah via Flickr

They are a way better predictor of spring than that unreliable, lying groundhog. In mid-April, when the redbuds and trillium start blooming, you know it's ramp season. You might even see a fella, or a bunch of fellas, heading up the hillside with burlap bags. Time to harvest. And harvesting is no casual matter. Local volunteer firemen and any other group you can imagine, host ramp dinners as fundraisers and make a fair profit on a few hours spent on the hillside with a shovel. Ramp festivals are all over Appalachian in the spring. After a hard cold winter, a pungent little vegetable with lots of lore and history makes a good excuse to get out and stretch, look around, and welcome spring. By early May the leaves die back and the plants flower.

Photo by milesizz via Flickr

But how do they taste? What's with that smell?

Photo by Kristin Brenemen via Flickr

Well, there's just no getting around it- ramps are aromatic in the extreme. Now some folks will tell you that there are no worse than onions or garlic cooked in the same quantities in which ramps are usually cooked. They probably have a point since ramps are generally cooked in big batches. Or maybe their nose hairs have been singed off.  But still- they are strong. Way back on my backpacking trip, my fellow hikers explained to me that they waited until the second say to eat ramps because the odor can linger on one's breath and body and they didnt' want to fumigate the tents at night. In other words, the ramp aroma will be evident in your sweat and body for a day or so especially if eaten raw. Actually, it might not be your breath the day you eat them as your sweat (and farts, let's just be honest) the next day that signals you were at a ramp feed. Much like beans at our house, if one person eats ramps, everyone eats ramps. It just wouldn't be fair. There are tales of kids being sent home from school after having eaten ramps the night before. Who knows if that's true but ramps are- aromatic. Garlic and onions with a bit of dirt. Some say funky foot smell.

Photo via
So the morning of my introduction, the guys had crawled out of their tents and gone ramp hunting. The ramps were being fried up right in the pan with bacon, eggs, and potatoes. Supposedly, boiling them briefly before cooking will take the edge off of them. The entire plant is used, bulb and leaves, like green onions and chives. Ramp pizza, which I like, makes an appearance around here in a few places, as does every kind of way you can think of cooking them. But the eggs and bacon thing seems to be the most popular. Ramps have begun to be noticed by gourmet chefs. Ramp soups, ramp casserole, pickled ramps, ramp pesto, ramp biscuits, ramp dumplings, roasted corn and ramp salsa, ramp jam, and ramp wine. Even a drink- the Bloody Stinkin' Mary. The King of Stink has a nice page with links to recipes if you're interested. I would guess, perhaps scandalously, that green onions could be substituted- but that would not be authentic and you didn't hear it from me.

I've had ramps a few times and can't say as I anticipate spring ramp season. Guess I'm just sort of neutral on them. No ramps in my genetic code, because I'm pretty sure that if you eat alot of ramps, some part of them adhere to your DNA.

Photo by melystu via Flickr

Want some but aren't in the right neck of the woods? No roadside stand in the truck of a car or back of a truck. No ramp feed at your local fire hall? Never fear- it's a new era and you can order online. Check out G-N Ramp Farm or Earthy Delights. Ramps go for $21 upwards of $35 pound when you order online. I'm not sure what they go for out of the trunk of a car.

Happy spring eats everyone!

1 comment:

  1. I just wanted to tell you I have spent the better half of yesterday and this morning reading your blog. How fun! Thanks for the couple of hours of good reading. :) Happy Spring.
    Wendy from Moss Beach, CA