Wild Ramps from West Virginia

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Today we are getting a much-needed rain storm in Washington; up to two inches of rain is expected. Michael and I decided, due to the weather, to cancel our planned trip to the farmers' market. Instead, I decided to catch up on writing about a new vegetable we discovered at the market three weeks ago: ramps, or wild leeks, from West Virginia.

One of the vendors had a table piled high with bundles of these small white vegetables. We had never seen nor heard of them before. They looked like a plumper version of scallions, with wide leaves that resembled the foliage of lilies of the valley. The sign said they were grown in the wild and have a flavor that crosses between garlic and onions. They were the most unusual thing I saw at the market, so I wanted to give them a try. We bought one small bundle at the last-hour sale price of $2.00.

Back home, I went on the Internet to learn about ramps. Also called wild leeks, ramps grow in damp forests and are native to the Appalachian mountains. There are a couple of theories as to why they are called ramps; my favorite is that "the English folk name 'ransom' (son of Ram), referred to the plant's habit of appearing during the sign of Aries... on the zodiac calendar." Ramps are only available during a short period of time in the spring, and they're the subject of numerous festivals throughout Appalachia. I learned that the increasing popularity of ramps in recent years -- for festivals and as an ingredient sought by gourmet chefs -- has led to concerns about over-harvesting. (While eating local food seems to be all the rage right now, this opened my eyes and made me realize there can be negative consequences of the local food movement, too.) The U.S. Forest Service has created rules to help protect ramps in their natural habitat.

In Appalachia, ramps are most commonly fried with potatoes, bacon, and eggs, and so that is exactly how I tried them. More like onions than garlic, they were a little different than any onions I've ever tasted. Their flavor was notably more earthy than regular onions. I liked them. I'm glad I had the chance to try them, and I enjoyed learning something new about a wild, edible plant that grows in our own nearby West Virginia.

Ramps in an Appalachian-style breakfast... for dinner.

P.S. -- Thank you to Alanna at A Veggie Venture for providing the farmers' market icon used above.


Blogger Whyite said...

Nice story and such an interesting plant. The ramps, eggs, potatoes and bacon sounds and looks realy good. I can almost taste them.

9:47 PM  
Blogger Kylee Baumle said...

I've not heard of ramps either. But they sound good, as does the dish you made!

11:44 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Being a Southerner, I've heard of ramps, but I don't think I've ever had them and I know I've never known precisely what they are. Mahalo for educating me. I'd love to try them just as you showed in a savory breakfast.

12:55 AM  
Blogger Green thumb said...

Beautiful post! Although I haven't heard of wild ramps before, but I love the way you have described them and the prepared breakfast looks sooo appetizing.

6:27 AM  
Blogger jennie said...

Yummy yummy. But I'd have to disagree with you about the depletion of the wild ramp supply being a result of the local food movement. Ramps are local in southern appalachia, not new york or or d.c. or the various other cities that they're being taken to for restaurants. If the only people collecting them were people who lived in the region who intended to eat them it's pretty unlikey there would be a shortage. It's a spring tonic after all, not something you eat a lot of.

10:04 AM  
Blogger Christa said...

Very good point. I think it comes down to one's definition of local. Local for whom? I've been shopping at the farmers' market with the notion that everything I buy there is "good", because I'm supporting local businesses and cutting down on food miles. Most of the vendors at our market hail from West Virgina, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Maryland. The products they offer are "more local" to me than most of the produce I see in the supermarkets (from California, Florida, Central and South America, etc.).

I thought I was doing good by buying ramps, until I later read about the overharvesting issue. Had I known about it, I would have passed them up for something else. I think part of the responsibility lies with the vendors/harvesters too, though. I realize they are trying to make a living and can charge a premium price for something that's available only for a limited time of year... but are they offering a product that's been responsibly harvested so as not to deplete the resource (or its habitat) for future use? Everything we buy/eat has repercussions somewhere else. Next time I see something "wild grown," I'll be less quick to jump at it until I know more.

Thanks for your comments, everyone!

6:29 PM  
Blogger Alanna Kellogg said...

Great discussion re 'all actions have consequences, some are unintended' --

PS Nice to see the icon popping up here!

6:56 AM  
Blogger Knitters Notebook said...

All I can say is YUM! What a wonderful dish!


8:33 AM  
Blogger Ed Bruske said...

Ramps being the first vegetable in spring are a big deal in Appalachia. They've become so popular that harvesting wild ramps has been banned in Smokey Mountain National Park and horticulturists are trying to develop a breed that can be grown domestically. There are many ways to prepare them. Check this post as well:

8:56 AM  
Blogger Jane O' said...

This was all very interesting to me. I had never heard of ramps before and it was very educational.

10:44 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Who would have thought that such a little veggie would be so interesting. I enjoyed the history lesson about the name.
I love leeks so I'm sure I would love Ramps.

8:16 PM  
Blogger Ki said...

Ramps are delicious. I read a NY Times article a couple of years ago and bought some by mailorder. They were delicious just sauteed in butter with a little salt and pepper. We ate the leaves and all but they can be a little stringy and chewy. I've grown so fond of them that I ordered some seed and ramps for planting. The ones I planted the previous year will be ready for harvesting next spring so I won't have to buy them anymore.

9:58 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I grew up in West Virginia near Clarksburg in a town named after my family (McWhorter) who owned the land coal was mined on there. I was born there, left and returned when I was three and stayed until I was eight. I am 51 now and living in California. I remember deer hunting season in W. Va. as a child and big skillets full of ramps cooking alongside deer meat. The ramps would give flavor to the meat and tenderize it. Nobody cooked deer meat without the ramps, they went hand in hand.I recall the smell of those ramps cooking and I was running around half starved most of the time being a foster child of sorts nobody really wanted. Nobody would ever let me taste the ramps or food cooked with them. After all of these years the smell of those ramps still haunted me and by golly I just ordered three pounds of them to be shipped to me plus a seed kit to grow my own. I remember them growing all around the forest wild everywhere and my Uncle going off to pick them. I remember what they smelled like being cooked with fresh deer meat, just divine. If you are in any area with some shady spot to plant them I can assure you you will not regret having a little patch of them and frying them up with a good cut of meat. Or even baking them with a roast for a wonderful flavor. When they cook the smell travels for a mile, like a garlic with no bitter. Thanks for the article!

4:22 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I live in Pleasants county West Virginia and I've been picking ramps out of the hills here since my dad showed me what they were many years ago. In fact,it's sort of a family tradition to pick ramps every spring. I'll clean them and eat them raw most of the time or even put them in turtle soup. Any way you use them, no other wild vegitation comes close to down home backwoods taste.

8:46 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I am a resident of West Virginia and enjoy venturing into the wilderness.The mountains around here offer many delicious foods.One of my favorites are ramps on homemade pizza.Thanks for recognizing the many treasures there are to find in Wild Wonderful West Virginia! Sincerely,Ramp Digger

2:32 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just a word to the wise. DO NOT eat these things and expect to be around people for a couple days aftewards. Where I grew up, kids were sent home from school for eating too many Ramps (we call em wild leeks)

They produce an odor that makes garlic smell like the finest cologne and simply showering doesn't help. If comes right back out through your pores.

1:29 PM  

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