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The Feast of the Ramson

On the first Saturday in April, if you visit the little town of Richwood in Nicholas County, you can take part in the "Feast of the Ramson."

What is a "ramson," you ask? Over the years, the name has been shortened by the natives to "ramp." Unless you're from Appalachia, you probably have never been exposed to ramps…unless you've been knocked over by the breath of someone who's been enjoying them. A ramp is actually a wild leek, a relative to garlic and onions…but much smellier than either. It grows in rich, well-drained soil from New England to Georgia and as far west as Iowa. In fact, the name "Chicago" comes from an indian word for the ramp. But it's in the southern Appalachians, and especially in southern West Virginia, that this lowly leek takes on its legendary gourmet status.

Ramps spring out of the soil in early spring…under the astrological sign of Aires the Ram. Since the ram has a peculiar and rambunctious personality and the plant has an equally rambunctious odor, it became known as "the ram's son" or ramson. In time, this was shortened to simply "ramp."

In the mountains, ramps are not only considered to be a delicacy, but a spring tonic as well. They are quite high in Vitamin C. But there is one problem with eating ramps…your breath. It's far worse than garlic breath and breath mints don't faze it. But, to true aficionados, having breath like a goat is a small price to pay for the delicious taste of the ramp. After all, it's the OTHER guy who's got to smell YOUR breath, right?

An interesting ramp story involves the late newspaper publisher Jim Comstock, one of Richwood's legendary colorful characters. Ol' Jim figured that everybody needed the opportunity to smell a ramp. He had a chemist friend duplicate the ramp's odor and added the concoction to the ink he used to print his paper…which he then mailed to expatriate West Virginians all over the country…which caused a countrywide stink (pun intended). Just one of Comstock's tainted papers could contaminate a whole sack of mail with the ramp's repugnant olfactory insult. Predictably the stuffed shirts in the Postal Service didn't appreciate Jim's humanitarian efforts and threatened to revoke his mailing permit if he continued to contaminate the mail with his stinky ink.

You can learn more about Richwood and the Feast of the Ramson at their website: www.richwood.com