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.

10 Out of This World Facts About Area 51

Nevada's Groom Lake Road, near Area 51.
Nevada's Groom Lake Road, near Area 51.
Robert Heinst/iStock via Getty Images

Though it's officially a a flight testing facility, the Nevada-based Area 51 has been associated with alien sightings and secret government studies for decades, and accounts of extraterrestrial sightings have sparked public imagination and conspiracy theories worldwide. Here are a few facts you might not already know about Area 51.

1. Area 51's existence wasn't officially acknowledged by the U.S. government until 2013.

Although it was chosen as a site to test aircraft in 1955, the government did not acknowledge that Area 51 even existed until 2013. According to CNN, maps and other documents created by the CIA were released thanks to Jeffrey T. Richelson, a senior fellow at the National Security Archives, who was granted access to the documents under the Freedom of Information Act. Unfortunately, the papers made no mention of little green men running around the facility.

2. We still don't really know why it's called Area 51.

Out of all the things we don't know about Area 51, Encyclopedia Britannica says that the one for-certain uncertainty about the zone is its name. Like everything else involving the site, the theories are out there: A video published by Business Insider suggests the name stems from the location's proximity to nuclear test sites that were divided into numerically-designated areas.

3. Area 51 is still expanding.

Area 51 has been growing, something which true believers may attribute to the need for more UFO parking spaces. Business Insider points out that satellite imagery of Area 51 displays significant construction within the area between 1984 and 2016, including new runways and hangars. BI posits that this could mean the B-21 Raider stealth bomber is being tested at the site—"or this is what they want us to believe."

4. The Moon landings were supposedly faked at Area 51.

One of the bigger conspiracy theories out there not only questions the authenticity of the 1969 moon landing, but claims it was staged at Area 51. Bill Kaysing—author of We Never Went to the Moon: America’s Thirty Billion Dollar Swindle—believes NASA officials filmed the fake landing within the base, brainwashed the astronauts, and used lunar meteorites picked up in Antarctica as a stand-in for moon rocks.

5. The first UFO "sightings" in Area 51 were easily explained.

Unidentified Flying Object UFO
ktsimage/istock via getty images plus

In its early years, Area 51 was used to test U-2 planes—which flew at altitudes higher than 60,000 feet—in an area far from civilians and spies. During these tests, pilots flying commercial aircraft at 10,000 to 20,000 feet would detect the planes far above them, completely in the dark about the government’s project. Hence sightings of unidentified objects were reported when in reality it was a military plane ... unless that’s what they want you to think.

6. Area 51 employees might travel to work via plane.

Those who work at Area 51 appear to have a pretty sweet commuter transportation program. According to USA Today, employees board unmarked aircraft at the McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas which ferries them to and from an undisclosed location. Referred to as “Janet” due to its call sign—which some say stands for “Just Another Non-Existent Terminal”—the exact destination of the Boeing 737-600s is officially unknown, though some speculate that the planes go to Area 51 and other top-secret locations. A former posting for an open flight attendant position stated applicants “must be level-headed and clear thinking while handling unusual incidents and situations,” but didn't mention any encounters of the third kind.

7. Former Area 51 employees who were sworn to secrecy are opening up about their work there.

Some former employees who were once sworn to secrecy about what happened at Area 51 are now free to share their stories. One Area 51 veteran, James Noce, recalled handling various mishaps that were accidentally exposed to the public eye—for example, the crash of a secret aircraft that was witnessed by a police officer and a vacationing family. The family had taken photos; Noce confiscated the film from their camera and told the family and the deputy not to mention the crash to anyone.

Noce recounted how there was no official documentation stating he worked at Area 51, and that his salary was paid in cash. He also confirmed that he never saw any alien activity at the site.

8. Area 51 employees once took the facility to court over hazardous working conditions.

In the 1990s, Jonathan Turley—a lawyer and professor at George Washington University—was approached by workers from Area 51 who claimed exposure to the site’s hazardous materials and waste was making them sick. In an article for the Los Angeles Times, Turley wrote that the workers "described how the government had placed discarded equipment and hazardous waste in open trenches the length of football fields, then doused them with jet fuel and set them on fire. The highly toxic smoke blowing through the desert base was known as 'London fog' by workers. Many came down with classic skin and respiratory illnesses associated with exposure to burning hazardous waste. A chief aim of the lawsuits was to discover exactly what the workers had been exposed to so they could get appropriate medical care."

According to Turley, "we prevailed in demonstrating that the government had acted in violation of federal law. However, the government refused to declassify information about what it had burned in the trenches, which meant that workers (and their doctors) still didn’t know what they had been exposed to. The government also refused to acknowledge the name of the base. The burning at Area 51 was in all likelihood a federal crime. But the government escaped responsibility by hiding behind secrecy[.]"

9. The best place for UFO-spotting near Area 51 is supposedly by a mailbox.

According to one person who claims to have worked in Area 51 and to have seen alien technology there (whose "claims about his education and employment could not be verified," according to How Stuff Works, which raises doubts about his credibility), there's one spot in particular where he would bring people to see scheduled UFO flights: The Black Mailbox, an unassuming pair of mailboxes which is apparently a hotspot for alien action (they're located about 12 miles from Area 51). It was originally a single black box for owner Steve Medlin's mail, but as people who wanted to believe began to tamper with and destroy that mail (and pop in letters to aliens), Medlin was forced to put another mailbox labeled “Alien” beneath it to appease visitors and to preserve his own post.

10. It's impossible to sneak into Area 51 without being spotted—and use of deadly force is authorized if anyone tries to evade security.

Given the intense nature of its secrecy, it comes as no surprise that Area 51 is heavily guarded. Pilots who purposefully fly into the restricted air zone can face court-martial, dishonorable discharge, and a stint in the can. The land is patrolled by “cammo dudes,” men wearing camouflage that have been seen driving around the area keeping an eye out for pesky civilians looking to break into the area. But truth-seekers, beware: Signs placed outside the area warn that Area 51 security is authorized to use deadly force on anyone looking to sneak onto the property.

This Convenient, Comfortable Travel Pillow Doesn’t Wrap Around Your Neck

Manuel-F-O/iStock via Getty Images
Manuel-F-O/iStock via Getty Images

If an angry bit of airplane turbulence has recently whammed your forehead into the window, you probably have the bruises to prove that sleeping on the go can be a dangerous game. Though neck pillows can offer some security, not everyone’s a fan—some people can’t sleep totally upright, some don’t think it provides enough support, and others simply don’t like the feeling of a plush toilet seat curled around their necks.

For those people, there’s the Ostrich Pillow Mini, a tiny, oblong pillow into which you slip your hand, forearm, or elbow, depending on what’s most comfortable for you. It will stay in place and protect your head from airplane turbulence in a way that no balled-up, threadbare hoodie ever could, but it’s not just for those lucky winners (or purchasers) of window seats. You can use the pillow wherever you might be inclined to rest your head on top of your arms, including plane or train trays, piles of library books, and office desks. One Amazon customer even used the pillows as elbow pads to protect himself from unforgivingly hard arm rests.

Ostrich pillow mini
Amazon

Since the Ostrich Pillow Mini essentially works as an extension of your arm, you don’t have to stay stone-still while you sleep. As Travel + Leisure’s Claudia Fisher puts it, “Sometimes, I even wake up from a nap to discover I’ve shifted in my sleep but brought my little arm pillow with me to support my head in its new spot.”

In addition to its main opening, the pillow has two other holes. One is a small, finger-sized opening through which you slide your thumb if you’re keeping the pillow on your hand. The other is a larger hole at the other end, through which you slide your hand if you want the pillow to stay on your forearm or elbow.

Ostrich pillow mini
Amazon

It’s compact enough that you can easily fit it into your carry-on bag, backpack, or briefcase, and understated enough that you can power nap in public without drawing attention to yourself. The outer layer is light gray, and the inner layer comes in Midnight Grey, Blue Reef, or Sleepy Blue. You can order it for $35 from Amazon.

Check out some other ways to make flying more comfortable here.

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