Today’s guest post was written by Jim Casada.
Ruminations on Ramps by Jim Casada – Copyright 2016
The humble ramp, a traditional wild mountain vegetable of early spring which is fairly widely dispersed in the forest understory at higher elevations, today often garners mention in menus of restaurants famed for haute cuisine. Rest assured any usage involves the vegetable after it has been cooked, for the high-brow epicures who frequent such establishments have no idea of the true nature of the ramp. In its pure, undefiled, raw state, the way hardy mountain folks have enjoyed it for generations, the ramp is at once a delightful delicacy and the embodiment of gag-inducing noxiousness.
Though mild tasting, even in its raw state, when eaten uncooked the ramp has a pungent after-effect that by comparison makes garlic seem a pantywaist pretender in the odiferous sweepstakes. Moreover, raw ramps are a potent purgative, once widely favored as a spring tonic and with properties guaranteed, as my Grandfather Joe used to put it, “set you free.”
My initial experience with ramps came when I was a 5th grade student at Bryson City Elementary School. A classmate showed up on a Monday after having enjoyed, in his words, “a bait of ramps” on Saturday. Never mind the passage of a day and a half, the lingering after-effect of his weekend feast was of a potency defying description. He literally emptied the classroom and sent the harried young teacher, whose educational training apparently omitted the chapter on how to deal with this particular disciplinary dilemma, scurrying down the hall to the principal’s office.
The result was one which would be repeated numerous times over the course of my educational experience. As was the case when some poor soul showed up with a “case of head lice,” the smelly offender was sent home for a three-day vacation. No rules had been violated and no laws had been broken. It was simply a situation where the welfare of the community–his classmates and indeed anyone who happened to be downwind for an appreciable distance–took precedence over that of the individual.
This sort of situation happened with increasing frequency as I entered high school, with the offensive offender invariably earned a temporary reprieve from the educational process. Some of the enforced absences were intentional while others involved nothing more than a family indulging in a long-established gustatory rite of spring—one that ranked right along spring tonics such as drinking sassafras tea or taking a dose of sulfur and molasses.
Eventually yours truly became involved in the consumption side of the ramp equation, albeit my first time was a matter of self-defense. A group of us boys who were avid fly fishermen decided to celebrate trout season’s opening day with a weekend camping trip. As we backpacked to our campsite one member of the party noticed a hillside covered with ramps and stopped to harvest several dozen of them. In camp he cleaned and chopped the ramps, scattered them over a plate of branch lettuce (saxifrage) he had found growing at creek side, and dressed the salad with hot grease and bacon bits. He proclaimed this “kilt sallet” delicious.
Truth be told, it didn’t matter whether the offering from nature’s abundant bounty was supremely tasty or odious to God and man alike. All of us were sharing a big tent and had no choice except to follow our companion’s dietary example. Once you have eaten ramps the noxious odor that seems to permeate the atmosphere for 30 yards in every direction magically disappears. We knew that, and soon enough all of us had a nice ramp salad to go with our trout and fried ‘taters. It provided the necessary refuge from an aroma that falls somewhere in the nasal spectrum with unwashed athletic socks, stump water, skunk cabbage, or a mid-summer garbage dump. One is almost tempted to wonder if that explains why ramp festivals have long enjoyed such popularity–everyone in attendance consumes the featured vegetable in sheer self-preservation.
For all my numerous personal adventures with ramps, my favorite tale connected with the wild vegetable comes from a stunt perpetrated decades ago by the editor of the Richmond (VA) Times-Dispatch. He had his printers prepare a special batch of ink that included the juice from raw ramps and use it on a run of newspapers to be mailed through the U. S. Postal Service. Postal authorities may have persevered with their motto stating “neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers form the swift completion of their appointed rounds,” but they were not at all amused with this situation. Indeed, eau de ramp stopped them in their tracks.
Cooked ramps are perfectly fine, and when scrambled with eggs or included in a batch of hash-browned potatoes they proved first-rate breakfast fare readily passing the smell test. But for the pure of heart and brave of palate, with ramps the raw route is the only road to travel. Just be advised that if you opt for this exercise in culinary adventure and wish to retain friends or keep your marriage intact, the slender, onion-like bulbs are best consumed with kindred spirits or somewhere back of beyond where you won’t return to civilization and the company of others for at least 72 hours.
I hope you enjoyed Jim’s post as much as I did!