A Southern Appalachian Tradition In The Time Of COVID-19: Ramps

May 13, 2020

The Coronavirus pandemic took hold right as one of Southern Appalachia’s most important cultural traditions annually takes place.  The pungent wild onions known as ramps are largely absent from people’s plates because they’re usually brought to the table by foragers – a group that is feeling the pinch of social distancing not in how they collect, but in how they sell.

In the mountains of Southern Appalachia, there’s a leafy, bulbous plant that’s been one of the region’s most enduring culinary traditions for centuries. Known locally as ramps, they grow in isolated patches across the rugged slopes of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

“There’s something magical about walking in the woods and coming out with food,” says botanist Adam Bigelow. When he’s not slappin’ the bass for Western North Carolina string band Old Dirty Bathtub, he’s leading walks through the woods as Bigelow’s Botanical Excursions. But not everyone appreciates the pungent aura of ramps because, well, they stink.

“There’s a lot of fabled stories about kids being sent home from school during ramp season because they were sweating it out and smelling really bad from it,” said Bigelow. “That’s not really something that draws people in, normally.”

However they’re eventually prepared - pickled, pureed, sautéed or even raw - ramps aren’t commercially cultivated, which means people usually buy them out of the trunk of a car on the side of the road.

Restaurants are typically the biggest customers during the season which begins in April. But with many closed and a handful of others offering just takeout and delivery service, restaurants aren’t buying.  That means many foragers simply aren’t making their annual treks to harvest ramps, disrupting the farm to table economy both for diners and foragers like Jason Pryor of Smoky Mountain Mushrooms.

“Normally I’d supply a lot of restaurants here with ramps, mushrooms and other wild forageables,” Pyror said. “With the restaurants shut down it’s hurt me a lot.”

It’s also hurt consumers hungry for the taste of this Appalachian spring tradition. Even at $20 a pound, ramps are a lot harder to find this year, but that might end up being a good thing. Although ramps can be sustainably cultivated almost indefinitely, sometimes they’re not, wreaking havoc on the crop. After a year of decreased harvest, the ramps will still be there when the foragers finally come back.

“A lot of us farmers and growers and foragers have all had to live kinda rough through the years, as seasons change and produce tends to go with it, so it’s just a temporary setback,” said Pyror. “I think as things progress on, we’ll pretty much get back into normalcy.”

And that means next year’s crop could be bigger, bolder and more bountiful than ever.