Yes, ramps stink. These "Easter onions" linger on your breath longer than raw garlic. Kids used to be sent home from school because of their bad breath after eating a "bait" of them. Put a sliver in your ice chest, even wrapped multiple times in plastic, and you'll still have to bleach the lingering smell away.
No matter. Ramps are one of those special foods that are so wrapped up with the culture and terroir, and, they add a terrific flavor to what could be blase´ foods.
Mention ramps to older folks in the Appalachians, and they'll wax rhapsodic. Ramps are one of the first harbingers of spring, a welcome green sprouting from winter's grasp. Gathering ramps up in the hollers and ridges was and is a time-honored ritual, as much a part of the Appalachian culture as growing apples or making moonshine. Traditionally chopped and fried up with "Irish" potatoes, or snipped into scrambled eggs, or just eaten raw, they are considered by those in the highlands a true gourmet delight. And chefs across America are jumping onto the ramp bandwagon, with ramps being served in LA, Chicago and NY city. (In fact, Chicago got its name from a Native American word for the "stinking onion.")
A recent TIMES magazine article suggested that "the Church of Ramp is one of the fastest-growing denominations in the religion of seasonality." Maybe ramps are the new arugula, it asks. Then the article goes a bit too far, quoting David Kamp, author of The Food Snob's Dictionary. "For food snobs.....ramps are overcelebrated and overly scrutinized, like the first ballgame played in April, even with 161 more games ahead."
Tell that to the folks in the Blue Ridge, who worship the ramp at several time-honored communal festivals.
SO WHAT EXACTLY IS A RAMP?
A member of the Allium genus, the lily family, it's akin to wild leeks and wild garlic. During late March through early May, their tender, broad green leaves shoot up from the ground, leaving the bulb hiding below. They like sandy soil in buckeye flats or under the bare branches of poplar, oak, or sugar maple trees in the hollers and valleys above 3,000 feet.
As with morels, the tasty wild mushroom that pops up about the same time, folks can be rather secretive about where they find ramps. Others nourish their patches. Some obtain permission from the national forests to harvest ramps.
With many chefs featuring wild ramps on their seasonal, spring menus, there's been a higher demand for wild harvests. And that has made some folks angry, because some ramp hunters have depleted entire patches. Folks are being encouraged to select the tender leaves and just a few bulbs, and some sow the bright red seeds back in the wild to enable patches to be replenished.
RAMP EATING CONTESTS
Note that no ladies took "the bait" at last year's Ramp-Eating Contest at Whitetop Mountain Ramp Festival near Mount Rogers, VA, held annually the third Sunday in May. The deal is to see how many bulbs you can wash down with the bottle of water provided. It seems the trick is barely chewing and swallowing quickly without choking. The winner "ate"57. His prize? A bottle of mouthwash.
During the afternoon, several bands played wonderful old-time mountain and bluegrass music. On the improvised wooden dance floor laid under a grove of huge old trees, folks clogged by themselves or waltzed or two-stepped with partners who didn't mind the smell of ramp breath.
This sweet little lady was 94 years old, and loved to dance. Her husband, her dance partner for 70-some years, had died the year before. It was touching to see the young men in their twenties, and older men, who took turns asking her to dance.
Ramps fried with white potatoes accompanied the barbecued chicken tended by the community grillmasters. Each year, money raised at this Ramp Festival helps to support the work of the Mount Rogers Volunteer Fire Dept. and Rescue Squad.
RAMP FESTIVALS in NC and southern VA for 2010:
April 24 - 25 Ramp Dinner & Appalachian Dinner/Concert at Stecoah Valley Center in Robbinsville, NC
April 24, Buladean Fire Dept, near Bakersville, NC Annual Ramp & Soup Bean Dinner at 11 until the food runs out. 828 688-4322
April 25 Kana'Ti Lodge at Max Patch Mountain, 3 pm Trout & Ramps Fish Fry and Foraged Forest Greens Fundraiser 828 622-7398 At 11 am, there's a guided mushroom hunt.
May 2 Waynesville NC Ramp Festival, NC's largest ramp festival with food, and country and bluegrass music 800 334-9036
May 16 Whitetop Mountain Ramp Festival (VA) 11a - 6p 276 388-3422