RAMPS: The Cookbook (St. Lynn’s Press, 2012), from the Editors of St. Lynn’s Press, is chock-full of delicious recipes dedicated to the ramp. Ramps, similar to onions and garlic, have been a staple to Appalachian dishes for decades but are just now gaining wide popularity thanks to food writers and chefs. The following excerpt, from the Introduction, introduces the Appalachian roots and popularity of this spring herb.
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The ramp (Allium tricoccum) is a wild, spring herb that flourishes in the shade of hardwood forests. It is nurtured by the leafy mulch, which also provides consistent moisture. Unlike other alliums — garlic, onions, leeks, chives — it has a broad leaf one to two inches wide and ten to twelve inches long, as opposed to a tube. Its taste is somewhere between a garlic and an onion, except that it doesn’t have a sharp bite and it doesn’t make you cry. It has a rich taste, not like anything else, and it lingers long after the last morsel has been eaten.
Ramps are found throughout the Appalachian region and much of the northeastern United States, extending into Canada and as far west as Wisconsin. A slightly different variety of ramp can be found in Europe, Japan and the Far East. Ramps make their brief appearance in spring, when ramp diggers descend on the woods in search of this pungent treat.
An Appalachian Spring Herb
Hello, I’m Glen Facemire, Jr., and I was raised in the mountains of West Virginia. I have had the privilege of having ramps on my table for some 60 years. My mother would cold pack the ramps in half-gallon jars to last us through the winter. When spring arrived we would start all over and enjoy the fresh ramps, along with poke greens, fiddlehead ferns and mushrooms. Where I was raised, the logging camps in the spring of the year always had an air about them that was the aroma of ramps cooking. The cook would put them in fried potatoes for dinner and serve them with scrambled eggs for breakfast.
Ramps for me and many of my peers growing up was not something so special, it was just a wild herb that most folks were fond of eating. It was always part of our lives. Foraging for it was a way to make a few dollars for spending money. As I grew older, I developed a deeper understanding of this wonderful plant.
Wherever the ramp (Allium tricoccum) appears, you find those who have discovered the unique flavor as well as the health claims that go with them. High in minerals and a good source of vitamins A and C, the ramp is appreciated as a blood cleanser and has been called one of the best spring tonics to be found. Many people will testify to a calming and relaxed feeling after eating ramps. Medical research into the ramp’s possible cancer benefits has been published in the Linus Pauling Institute of Medical Study and is ongoing. Whatever it is that the ramp has, it has stood the test of time and is still going strong in the kitchens of some of the most popular chefs throughout the United States and Canada.
Ramp dinners and festivals are the talk of the town throughout Appalachia in April and early May. Some people will travel several hundred miles to have what we call a “mess of ramps.” They are quite often served with brown beans, fried potatoes, corn bread, ham or bacon, buttermilk or sassafras tea.
Richwood, West Virginia, is known as The Ramp Capital of the World and has laid claim to the title for over 50 years. The ramp cleaning starts about a week before the big Richwood ramp feed and is not finished until about a ton of ramps have been cleaned and put in the cooler for that big day, the third weekend in April.
Many folks have been introduced to the special appeal of ramps through these festivals, some as small as a family get together or a fundraiser for a fire department. These dinners and festivals, ranging from ten or 15 people to over a thousand, have ushered in an increased interest in ramps, which in turn has stressed the wild patches to the extent that some areas have banned the digging of ramps altogether and have put limits on the amount of ramps that can be harvested.
I have spent much of my life studying the ramp as a naturalist with a passion for this herb of the wild. At my West Virginia farm I have sought to ensure the future enjoyment of ramps for those who come after us by promoting sustainable cultivation through seed and bulb preservation. I am pleased to report that in the last 15 years or so ramp seeds and ramp bulbs have been introduced to family herb gardens in areas where there were only small amounts of ramps or in some cases no ramps left in the wild at all — a very hopeful sign.
A better understanding of the ramp and ramp growing has come to the general population through books, lectures and online web sites. I also give credit to the Small Farms Bureau and timber management areas for aiding in the preservation of the ramp and its responsible harvesting.
It is my opinion that with a little help the ramp will be with us for many, many years to come, to grace our tables and to give us family and community get-togethers for fun and fundraising for worthy causes.
May you enjoy the recipes that have been prepared for us with that most unique herb, the ramp.
More from RAMPS: The Cookbook:
Glen Facemire, Jr., and his wife Noreen are the proprietors of the Ramp Farm. In his book, Having Your Ramps and Eating Them Too, he has put together his lifetime’s passion for, and knowledge of, ramps. For more information visit his website.
This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from RAMPS: The Cookbook, Cooking with the Best Kept Secret of the Appalachian Trail by Editors of St. Lynn’s Press and published by St. Lynn’s Press, 2012. Purchase this book from our store: RAMPS: The Cookbook.