Every corner of the United States has its own special, niche ingredient that’s as much a part of the culture as it is of the cuisine. For Western North Carolina - love ‘em or hate ‘em – it’s ramps.
Since at least 1930 – nobody seems to remember exactly – Haywood County’s been home to a small regional festival centered around ramps. No, these aren’t the kind for taking your bike off sweet jumps – the ramp is a type of wild onion that grows throughout eastern North America, but especially so across Southern Appalachia. Conrad Hefner is one of the organizers of the Haywood Ramp Convention, held at American Legion post number 47 in Waynesville. “It’s just a staple for a lot of people in these mountains,” said Hefner. “When I was very young, that’s when I started finding out about the ramp myself. Mom would cook with them. My grandmom would cook with them. It’s been handed down for long time.”
The Cherokee have a long relationship with the plant, as do the European settlers who came later. But as the region’s demographics continue to change, many current residents didn’t grow up here. “We have a lot of people coming here (who don't) know what a ramp is,” he said. “It’s a mountain thing.” And what is it people like about this thing? “The taste!”
To learn more, let’s try retired Haywood Community College horticulture instructor George Thomas. “Basically, I don’t like ramps,” said Thomas.
Well that didn’t work out very well. So back at the ramp convention, let’s consult the discerning palate of one local five year old. Had he tried ramps before? “No.” And does he want to try ramps? “No.”
What’s the problem? They’re high in Selenium. They’re also low in calories and a good source of vitamins A and C. Commander-elect of American Legion post 47 Mike Underwood clued me in. “When I went to school years ago, elementary school, if you’d ate ramps that day and came to school they sent you home, because of the smell,” Underwood said. “Some kids done it just to go home, I guess.”
A member of the allium family, ramps are unrepentantly pungent, and persistent. Not quite a leek but more than a chive, ramps have a garlicky flavor that legendary 20th century Appalachian writer Horace Kephart – himself a midwesterner – said he could still taste a week after eating them. With their broad, unmistakable leaves and their proliferation in fields and forests, ramps are readily available during a short season beginning in April. The entire plant, leaves stems and bulbs, is edible and if the roots are left in the ground, ramps can be sustainably cultivated indefinitely. And in a rugged, isolated region that has historically been poverty-stricken, foraging has long been the only way to get them. One local woman I talked to couldn’t tell me how much they cost because she’d never had to buy one.
But some people actually pay big money for them. Like Fiddlehead ferns and Morels, ramps became a trendy ingredient for high-end chefs from LA to New York during the 1990s. You can find them online for $20 to $40 a pound, not including overnight shipping. You can also find them at various fine dining establishments, like Frog’s Leap Public House in Waynesville, where chef Sean Whelan has several dishes on the menu. “Right now, we have a seared sea scallop with risotto and ramps, broccoli and asparagus, we also have a Colorado lamb chop with ramp pesto and a ramp fingerling potato, our pork chop has goat cheese with scallion ramp grits and we have a Merguez and steak flatbread with a ramp pesto,” Whelan said.
They’re also great in meatloaf, with potatoes, or in eggs, but no matter how popular they get in restaurants like Frog’s Leap, they’re still sourced much like they were by the Cherokee, or even as in the time of Kephart. “We currently have one of our dishwashers, actually has a patch that he’ll cultivate for us and bring them in,” he said. “But for the most part, we just have random foragers calling us and saying, ‘Hey I’ve got X amount of pounds of ramps can you take them?’ and if we can, we do.”
And if you haven’t tried them, better hurry – their season is just about up.