By: Rachel Davis
From the moist, shady floors of Appalachian forests in late March and early April you can find a spring delicacy pushing through the fallen leaves with smooth, broad, light green leaves often with deep purple or burgundy tints on the lower stem, and a scallion-like stalk and bulb rooted tightly just beneath the soil surface. The white bulb, lower leaf stalks and the leaves are edible. These attractive wild leeks are known around here as ramps, or ramson.
The ramp (Allium tricoccum), is a wild onion native to North America. They can be found in the spring growing in their natural environment from South Carolina to Canada, and are popular in the cuisines of the rural South and Quebec. Ramps are a unique, acquired taste; the strong flavor and odor is best compared to a combination of onions and garlic.
Local ramson folklore can be traced back to early English immigrants of the southern Appalachian Mountains. Mountain folk believed feasting on ramps in the spring would ward off the ailments of winter, as Dad always said they “purify your blood.” I have also heard it said that ramps are good for the heart; may have anticancer qualities, and will cure what ails ya.
The mountain folk of Appalachia have long celebrated the arrival of spring with ramp feasts. Ramp festivals, feeds and dinners are widespread throughout Appalachian communities annually celebrating the arrival of spring with the pungent little plant. These days the local restaurants serve a variety of foods containing the wild leeks, and they can be purchased at local grocery stores, or from individuals selling their bounty along the rural roads.
Full blown festivals usually include a cook-off, ramp eating contest, heritage music, dancing, crafts, and a pageant. Locals sell their specialty foods featuring ramps such as jelly, salsa and seasonings. Local artisans display handmade ramson souvenirs, and humor focuses on the plants extreme pungency. No exaggeration, their scent seems to emanate from the pores of your skin for a couple of days after a hearty ramp meal.
Ramps add wonderful flavor to soups, egg dishes and casseroles, and can be enjoyed raw or cooked. Simply cut off the roots, scrub off any dirt, and rinse thoroughly. The green leaves usually have a milder flavor than the bulb. In central Appalachia a traditional ramp dinner includes freshly picked ramps, scrambled eggs, fried potatoes, bacon, ham, pinto beans, and cornbread. That’s a menu that will make any Mountaineer hungry!
Ramps are popping up in markets and restaurants from New York to San Diego, have you tried the little wild leek known as the “king of stink?”