|The Feast of the Ramson
by Ben Crookshanks
Ramps are a delicacy, and eating them is a long standing annual tradition in parts of West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee and North Carolina. Many consider ramps a spring tonic. I had a great uncle who firmly believed that if he could get a good mess of ramps in the spring, he could live another year. I suppose it was true. He died one year while the ramps were being cooked.
The ramp or “wild leek” (Allium tricocum), like onions and garlic, is a member of the lily family. Ramps love the shade and can be found growing in rich soil from western New England, south to Georgia and west as far as Minnesota and Iowa. “Chicago” is a rendering of the Indian word for ramps. The plant was originally called the “ram’s son” or “ramson”. It came up during the sign of Aries the ram and had a rather rambunctious odor, so it had to be the “ram’s son”. Over the years, that got changed into “ramp”.
Ramps peep up out of the ground just after the winter snow melts. Snow or freezing cold doesn’t hurt them. They have a bulb similar to a green onion and two or three flat narrow, pointed leaves 8 to 10 inches long and a couple inches wide. By summer, the leaves are wilted and withered away. These are replaced by a long naked stem with a cluster of spokes on top. At the end of the spokes are tiny white blooms. The bloom is rich with honey and the plant is pollinated by bees.
The ramp eating season only lasts roughly from April first through May. By that time, they start to wilt and are too strong to eat. The whole plant is edible either raw or cooked. Ramps have a scent and taste similar to an onion. Although they are widely distributed and very tasty, they are not widely consumed. They are popular mainly in the Appalachian and Smokey Mountains. Several years ago, two West Virginians were arrested in a Cleveland park one night while they were digging ramps. A newspaper story said they were arrested for digging up a “plant with a rank odor”. The police and the newspaper had no idea what it was.
The downside of eating ramps is ramp breath. When they are eaten and mixed with the gastric juices, the smell is enhanced and greatly magnified. Ramp breath can only be described as a stench, a stench of a royal order. Garlic breath can’t hold a candle to it. I mean it will almost curl the hair in your nose and mouthwash or breath mints won’t faze it. The only immunity is to have eaten some yourself. While onion or garlic breath is usually gone by the next day, ramp breath lingers on for up to two or three days, depending on the individual’s metabolism. The smell also oozes out through the pores of your skin. Some schools will suspend a student for eating ramps. A few doctors will flatly refuse to see a patient who has eaten them.
The late Jim Comstock, editor of The West Virginia Hillbilly and The News-Leader, one of Richwood’s more colorful characters, decided that everyone should have the opportunity to smell a ramp. Since he mailed his newspapers all over the state and points beyond, he figured the best way would be to have a chemist friend of his chemically reproduce the scent of a ramp and he would add it to the ink he used to print The News-Leader. One paper was enough to contaminate a whole sack of mail. The Postal Service didn’t appreciate Ole Jim’s humanitarian effort. They told him if he ever pulled that stunt again, he would lose his second class mailing permit. He countered by saying he was the only publisher in the country with a “… paper required by the Federal Government to smell good”.
The most common way to prepare ramps is by frying (in bacon grease), alone or with scrambled eggs, potatoes and sausage or bacon. They can be eaten raw or cut up in a salad. Ramps are high in vitamin C, which does a body good after a long winter.
Organizations such as high school bands, churches, volunteer fire departments and rescue squads hold ramp suppers to raise money. Traditional menus include, along with the ramps, ham, brown beans, fried potatoes and cornbread. All washed down with another spring tonicsassafras tea.
This year, the Feast of the Ramson will be held on April 26, 2003, in Richwood High School. Should you like to attend, from Oak Hill, WV take Rt. 19 north to Summersville, then Rt. 39 east. If you would like more information, call the Richwood Chamber of Commerce at (304) 846-6790 or check out their web site www.richwoodwv.com