(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on April 16, 2008. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to promptly respond to new questions or comments.)
Ramps (Allium tricoccum) are native to North America, harvested in the early Spring from South Carolina to Ontario in the upper cool, forested regions of the Appalachian mountains. The name comes from Rams or Ramson, stemming from an Elizabethan name for wild garlic, and used by early English settlers in the southern Appalachians. Others say the name ramson comes from the ramps first appearing in the zodiac sign of Aries (the ram) March 20-April 20. The ramp looks like a scallion but with broader flat leaves. Both the bulb and the leaves are edible although the leaves are a bit milder. They add a pungent flavor to hearty dishes like soups and casseroles and are often fried up with bacon and potatoes at Ramp Festivals. Ramp lovers offer this caution: Don’t be surprised if people keep their distance for a few days after you have eaten ramps!
Ramps will grow from the few seeds they produce although germination make take a year or more, and then 4 or 5 years to make a bulb. More commonly, ramps are spread by underground rhizomes. Ramp pickers (generally small-scale subsistence harvesters) will usually dig clumps and leave individual ramps to fill the gaps for the next year. The late wild foods evangelist Euell Gibbons considered ramps "the sweetest and the best of the wild onions."
Ramps were regarded as a spring tonic to cleanse the blood, and were used to keep away colds and the flu. Modern science concurs, and shows Alliums (which include ramps) are high in Vitamin C which was often missing in winter diets. Ramps are said to also increase the production of high-density lipoproteins in the body which are linked to reduced blood serum levels of cholesterol. An Oregon State University professor thinks there might be cancer-fighting potential in this powerfully stinky Appalachian woods plant. http://oregonstate.edu/dept/ncs/newsarch/1998/Jan98/ramps.htm
Following instinct or maybe traditions, the early mountain folk had found a tasty, nutritional spring food. The Native Americans knew ramps well and besides making a spring tonic, made a poultice from the bulb juice to put on bee stings. The Menomini tribe referred to the area near the southern shore of Lake Michigan where ramps were abundant as "shikako" meaning "skunk place". The name was later used for a white settlement there now known as Chicago.
In the central mountains, ramps are usually fried with potatoes in bacon grease or scrambled with eggs and served with bacon, pinto beans, and cornbread. Many chefs are now bringing fresh ramps to their spring menus along with other spring delicacies like fiddlehead ferns and wild morels. Food TV Network chefs Bobby Flay, Emeril Lagasse and Mario Batali have all aired shows featuring ramp recipes. http://www.starchefs.com/features/ramps/html/index.shtml
If you want to try ramps and they are not available locally, try Earthy Delights to order online. http://www.earthy.com/ Earthy Delights also posts a Wild Harvest calendar of when other wild edibles like truffles and wild mushrooms are in season and available. http://www.earthy.com/Earthy_Delights_Wild_Harvest_C_W65.cfm
There are many Ramp Festivals held in Tennessee, North Carolina, West Virginia and up into Pennsylvania. The Festivals are family-oriented and usually have Bluegrass and/or Gospel music, old-fashioned games like horseshoe pitching, arts and crafts and of course lots of food made with (and without) ramps. Some festivals also have antique tractor and car displays and Ramp Cook-offs.
Some Ramp Festivals:
Market Ramps, © John Sigler, Used by Permission
Blue Ridge Mountains, © Lynn Graesing, Used by Permission
Ramps in the Woods, © Phil Berry, Used by Permission
Playing the Dulcimer, © Al Braunworth, Used by Permission
Old Timer Playing his Fiddle, © Timothy Morton, Used by Permission
Ramps in Snow, © Phil Berry, Used by Permission
Ramps 'n Taters Recipe
4 or 5 large potatoes, diced
1 lb. bacon
1 1/2 lb. ramps, cleaned and cut up
6 eggs (optional)
salt and pepper to taste
1. Fry bacon in skillet.
2. Remove from pan and set aside.
3. Put cut up potatoes in bacon grease and let fry 3 to 4 minutes.
4. Add cut up ramps and continue frying until potatoes are well done.
5. Put previously fried bacon on top of potatoes and ramps; let simmer for about 2 minutes.
If you want to add scrambled eggs, add after potatoes are done and before adding bacon.