The Elusive Springtime Plant That’s Worth a Trip to Appalachia
It’s springtime, which means that in the eastern half of North America, ramps are sprouting on the forest hillsides, particularly in Quebec and Appalachia. But if you live west of the Mississippi River, there’s a good chance you’ve never heard of this elusive member of the onion family.
Also known as wild leek, Allium tricoccum is valued for its strong smell and taste—a combination of onions and garlic—as well as its culinary versatility. Both the leaves and the bulb are edible. It kind of looks like a scallion, with green leaves, a small white bulb, and reddish or purple stems, but you’ll know a ramp by its extra-garlicky aroma and its two or three broad, rabbit ear–style leaves. It usually makes its debut in April, after the defrosting of the soil. Because ramps are one of the first veggies to emerge in spring, many consider them a folksy blessing—a sign that winter is officially over and the growing season has begun.
Foodie interest in ramps has blossomed thanks to a surge in foraging chic over the last several years: Chefs from Brooklyn to San Francisco have them shipped across states and sometimes the entire continent, to be roasted, sautéed, grilled, stewed, pickled, deep-fried, stir-fried, pizza-fied, omeletted, and served raw, among other applications. (Mario Batali is a ramp superfan—he posted this cool cooking-in-reverse video about them on his site in 2015.) Their short season—they’re only around for about six weeks per year—only adds to their cachet.
Native Americans were eating ramps, of course, long before hipster foodies got so excited about them, with many tribes using them as a diet staple for centuries. The Dakota and Winnebago tribes not only ate ramps but also treated insect bites and stings with ramp juice, while the Cheyennes poured it in their ears to relieve aches and ringing. By some accounts, even the word Chicago actually comes from the Menomini people’s word for the ramp, shika’ko, which once grew plentifully in the region.
Ramps are picky about where they grow: They need a mix of conditions (shade, cool temperatures, heavy vegetation, bark from deciduous trees, and no standing water) that can best be found in the Appalachian Mountains. They carpet the forest floor for miles between northern Alabama and Georgia and southeastern Canada, but they’re also around—if harder to find—in Maine, Quebec, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick. In Quebec, where ramps are sometimes known as ail des bois (garlic of the woods), the plants are so dear that commercial ramp harvesting is illegal, and there are laws limiting personal harvest. (This has created a booming market for ramp poachers.)
Legend has it that ramps are notoriously hard to cultivate. But committed gardeners can do it, even though the process takes years from seed to full-grown plant. Glen Facemire has found success at it: He and his wife, Norene, run the world’s only ramp farm in the tiny town of Richwood, rural West Virginia, and his life’s work is not only growing ramps but teaching other people to grow them and harvest them correctly. “They are wild ramps,” Glen says of his crop. “We just got them on the different side of the fence now.”
Although Glen says he has been “fooling with ramps” since he was a kid, he and Norene only learned to cultivate and maintain them through trial and error. The Facemires ship both mature ramps as well as seeds and bulbs, particularly to customers in New England, which additionally helps to combat overharvesting of the wild patches.
Glen and Norene serve ramps every year at Richwood’s Feast of the Ramson, which is the largest of about a dozen ramp festivals throughout Appalachia. Richwood styles itself as the Ramp Capital of the World, and the festival serves about 2000 pounds of them annually. At this year’s event in late April, the peppery, oniony scent of ramps filled the cafeteria of the local elementary school as crowds filed in to have their trays loaded with fried potatoes, cornbread, ham, soup beans, and a pile of boiled ramps topped with strips of bacon. Mason jars of earthy, spicy sassafras root tea were on hand to wash it all down. In the evening, live musicians performed, including songwriter John Wyatt, whose “Richwood Ramp Song” is always on the set list. At the city hall and firehouse on the other side of town, ramp-themed folk art is sold, among other crafts, and people sell fresh ramps out of their trucks.
Richwooders are such devotees that, at one time, the town had its own Ramp King, a man named Bato Crites, so titled because he reportedly gathered ramps faster than anyone else in town, personally collecting hundreds of pounds each season. A few years ago, the Richwood News Leader even went so far as to add ramp juice to the ink of the newspaper before they printed it, which made for a stinky surprise for its readers—and for the postmaster general, which reprimanded the publishers.
Several other communities throughout the Appalachians hold yearly ramp festivals in the springtime, although they’re mostly in West Virginia, where, according to Joey Aloi of the West Virginia Food & Farm Coalition, there are “more towns than people, and more festivals than towns.” At Stinkfest in Huntington, West Virginia, you can get ramp pesto and ramp cheddar biscuits, and at the Ramps and Rail Festival in Elkins, there’s ramp burgers, ramp chili, and ramperoni rolls—a take on the classic West Virginia pepperoni roll.
If you’re outside of ramp country, and you want to try ramps without traveling to Appalachia, you’re in luck—a number of grocers in the U.S. have them shipped in during their short season, which usually lasts through May. Farmers markets are your best bet, and select Whole Foods occasionally carry them too. But prepare to be gouged: While local ramps in West Virginia sell for about $5 a pound, they’re going for $25 a pound at Seattle’s Pike Place Market, and they command upwards of $30 in spots in New York City. You can also pay $149 to have a 5-pound box shipped anywhere in the U.S. Or, if you’re feeling ambitious (and patient), you can order some seeds or bulbs from the Facemires in Richwood and try your luck in your own garden.
Just be forewarned about the smell, which—love it or hate it—will seep out of your pores for a few days afterward. As Grubstreet’s Hugh Merwin described it, “By comparison, the odor of ramps makes garlic smell like Chanel No. 5.”
All photos by Meg van Huygen except where noted.