The Elusive Springtime Plant That’s Worth a Trip to Appalachia

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iStock

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.

A sign for a ramp festival in West Virginia.
Meg van Huygen

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.

A crowd eating at a ramp festival in Richwood, West Virginia.
Stephen Allen

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.

A plate of food at Richwood’s Feast of the Ramson.
Meg van Huygen

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.

9 Regional Pizza Toppings Worth a Try

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iStock

Some people can become so devoted to their favorite specific pizza toppings, that many online ordering apps allow you to preset your preferences with the expectation they’re never going to change.

Granted, pepperoni and mushroom with extra cheese never fails to satisfy. But in honor of National Pizza Week (which kicks off today), try ordering one of these regional specialty toppings that might totally change your pizza perspective.

1. Truffles // New York City

Fall is truffle season, and New York’s restaurants and pizzerias love to take full advantage of the fluffy fungi to add flavor. As supplies are shipped through the city's artery of eateries, you'll find several locations that add the shaved delicacy to pies. Yelp reviewers are fond of Song E Napule in the West Village.

2. Lobster //Boston


Karyn Christner via Flickr // CC BY 2.0

It’s no great surprise that crustaceans who were occupying the coast just a few hours prior to being served are going to be a town specialty. But Boston does a great job of incorporating shellfish into their Italian-inspired fare, too: One of the most notable dishes is at Scampo inside the Liberty Hotel (and former jail), where chef Lydia Shire takes a thin crust pizza and douses it with heavy cream, garlic, and the meat of an entire two-pound lobster.

3. Provel Cheese // St. Louis, Missouri

If you think you’ve tried every possible cheese variety on your crust, you might have missed St. Louis’s proprietary variation: Provel, a highly-processed blend of Swiss, provolone, and cheddar. Gooey, waxy, and thick, it can be found at area chain Imo’s, which also doubles as the cheese’s distributor.

4. Crab // Baltimore, Maryland


jeffreyw via Flickr // CC BY 2.0

While other area pie shops toss crab on their menu, no less an authority than Zagat declared Matthew's Pizza's crab deep dish pie to be well worth a road trip. It’s pizza so good that it helped fuel writer David Simon through a stint producing HBO’s The Wire. Simon once said "it’s unlike anything that calls itself pizza anywhere in the world."

5. Mashed potato // New Haven, Connecticut

New Haven was already renowned for its pizza before the proprietors of BAR decided to take the concept of comfort food to a new level. Their mashed potato pizza is topped with light, whipped spuds and bacon bits.

6. Salad // Los Angeles


David J via Flickr // CC BY 2.0

It seems like a cliché: of course image-obsessed L.A. would spare calories by dousing their pizzas with lettuce. But looks can be deceiving. Grey Block Pizza in Santa Monica uses covers its dough with cheese, onion, and sour cream, which is then topped with a chopped salad, lemon-olive oil dressing, and a layer of fresh avocados. It’s thick, crunchy, and has no ability to spare your waistline.

7. Barbeque // Memphis, Tennessee

Barbeque chicken pizza is everywhere, but if you want it done right, head to Memphis and opt for the pork. Coletta’s—the city's oldest restaurant—takes a standard crust and drowns it in pulled pork and their signature barbeque sauce. The pies are so good that Elvis Presley kept a running tab he’d have Colonel Parker (his manager) pay off monthly. If you’re not local, they’ll be happy to ship one to you.

8. UNCOOKED, A.K.A. OHIO VALLEY STYLE // STEUBENVILLE, OHIO


Daniel Oines via Flickr // CC BY 2.0

While some bloggers have compared this practice to topping pizza with a Lunchables box, there’s no denying it’s an intriguing take on preparing a pie. Pizzerias in Steubenville are fond of cooking the dough and then adding uncooked cheese and toppings post-mortem, allowing the heat from the crust to slowly melt the cheese or using a takeout box to effectively steam-cook the top.

9. Kangaroo //Sydney, Australia

The adventurous meat lover may want to venture to Sydney, where local establishments like The Australian Hotel offer pies topped with rich kangaroo meat. Slices of 'roo tenders are marinated in a pepper and onion olive sauce. If that's too tame for you, the Hotel can also serve up a Salt Water Crocodile slice.

Google Assistant's New 'Interpreter' Mode Can Translate 27 Languages in Real Time

Google
Google

Move over, Google Translate. The Google Assistant's new Interpreter mode can translate spoken French, Spanish, and 25 other languages into English (and vice versa) in real time, according to Gizmodo. The new technology, which will eventually be rolled out to Google Assistant devices and third-party smart displays, brings us one step closer to having a universal translator capable of interpreting all the world's languages—a device previously only seen in sci-fi worlds like Star Trek and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

Currently, the Interpreter mode is only being used at three hotels in New York, San Francisco, and Las Vegas. During a demo at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas, a Google employee approached the concierge and asked questions in German. The concierge, equipped with a Google Home Hub, used a voice command to prompt the device to go into interpreter mode. From there, the two were able to carry on a conversation back and forth. Although one error was made, the translated text appeared on the smart display, which provided enough context clues to figure out what the intended message was, according to WIRED.

Technology reporter Shannon Liao at The Verge tested it out with Mandarin. She writes that although it's not perfect, it's still "a pretty big improvement from not being able to understand a foreign language." One common complaint is the lag—users must wait a couple seconds for the Interpreter to issue a translation.

However, Google's product manager, Vincent Lacey, told Mashable that the Interpreter mode is faster and more advanced than that of Google's Pixel Buds—ear buds that provide real-time translations, but only to the person wearing them. With the Interpreter, all parties to the conversation will be able to understand what's being said.

Following the pilot phase at the three hotels, the Interpreter will be available on all Google Home devices as well as third-party smart displays by the end of the month, a Google spokesperson tells Mental Floss. It will also be rolled out to third-party smart speakers and mobile phones in the near future, according to Google. Interpreter Mode supports the following languages: Arabic, Chinese (Mandarin), Czech, Danish, Dutch, English, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Hindi, Hungarian, Indonesian, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Russian, Slovak, Spanish, Swedish, Thai, Turkish, Ukrainian, and Vietnamese.

[h/t Gizmodo]

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