Like nearly all highly coveted foods, ramps have a crevice of calendar days when they appear in titillating abundance. Their delicate green fronds rise from the leafy detritus of primeval forest floors, signaling spring. And thus the mania begins. Every year, those wise in the ways of ramps take to the woods, seeking their precious, restorative quarry.
A ramp is as slender as the most refined pinkie. It shyly pokes its head from the ground from late March to April. They grow in fertile, shady woodlands all over the eastern United States and southeast Canada, though I think of them as particularly Appalachian. It’s possible to cultivate ramps, but they are finicky. The majority of the ramps harvested every year are foraged. These alluring wild mountain leeks have grown for centuries, so if you are rolling your eyes and thinking how very 2011 it is to extol the many culinary and spiritual virtues of ramps, you may be dismissed. Only those pure in heart can enter the magical portal to this pungent Brigadoon. It’s been a hell of a winter. Go gather ye ramps while ye may.
That the heartbeats of an entire group of humans—young and old, hillbilly and hipster—can quicken so at the mention of an untamed vegetable that shares a prosaic name with a simple machine perplexes many. My husband, for one. He does not object to ramps; in fact, he will gladly eat them. What he does not get is the mighty ruckus people like me raise over a feral edible plant. The concept of combing the hillsides in search of elusive alliums and then investing dirty hours on hands and knees extricating their slender roots from the chilled spring soil holds little appeal to him. And since the treasure hunt is half of the point, he’s only experiencing a shadow of the ramp when he ingests it.
Appalachians pride themselves on their self-reliance. To glorify the ramp is exquisitely Appalachian. To glorify the ramp is to recognize the generally unnoticed wonder that quietly rises up from deep, dark, ancient hollers where living mindlessly is not advisable.
So ramps are not just a food or a fever of spring. They are an emblem and a practice and an edible manifestation of a tribe. You don’t need to live in a shack in the woods to belong to that tribe. All you have to do is get why there’s a tribe in the first place.
And yet the flavor of a ramp offers enough stinky-breath allure to pay off the emotional hype surrounding it. Ramps are scallion-esque, but not oniony. Their emerald fronds are herbal, but not chive-y. There’s some garlicky assertiveness in the white root, but it’s not as sharp. That’s what’s foxy to a chef about a ramp. It’s an aromatic and a cooking green all in one, familiar in concept but and exotic in spirit.
The Appalachian tradition hinges upon having access to heaps and heaps of ramps. Heaps, literally. This amount is known colloquially as “a big mess of ramps,” or even more colloquially as “a messaramps”. A messaramps shrinks dramatically when exposed to heat, and the result is somewhat like very pungent cooked spinach: green, but zingy with that good stink.
These cooked ramps are often served alongside cornbread and beans at church fundraising ramp dinners, where many hands make faster work of the digging, sorting, cleaning, and cooking. A common way to prepare the ramps is to first blanch them; it’s fast, and it’s said to tame these little buggers. I prefer to chop the white root ends into segments about a centimeter long and saute these gently in a big skillet filmed with olive oil. After a few minutes of this, when the roots are good and aromatic (they won’t become translucent as chopped, cooked onions do), roughly chop the greens and throw them in. They will wilt yieldingly. Season this with salt and a few light grinds of pepper; now you can enliven a frittata, risotto, pizza, sandwich, omelet, quiche, home fries, et cetera.
A raw ramp is an entirely different beast from its mellower cooked sibling. Raw ramps emit vapors that intoxicate some and polarize all. If you have only a dozen or so precious ramps to in your hot little hands, I recommend using them as crazy-intense herbs. Make ramp aöli, or mince them and gently knead them into a hamburger patty with a dash or two of Worcestershire sauce (and then serve it with ramp aöli). Or chop up your scant little bundle of ramps, flash it in a little olive oil, and cook eggs sunny-side-up right on the rampy nest.
The only way to go wrong with ramps is to disrespect them. When you find a patch in the woods, don’t go decimating the whole thing like a heathen. Dig up a few ramps here and a few ramps there, allowing the patch to maintain its numbers from season to season. And it’s best to leave some of the root end in the ground, if possible, to facilitate next year’s growth. I sense that the trendiness of ramps in urban markets peaked last year, but there’s still a need to preserve, not deplete, the wild rampshed.
Should you not be privy to the secreted lands where ramps thrive, take heart. Certainly there’s something else equivalent in your life. If not in flavor, in essence. Ramps present themselves to those who choose to be aware of what surrounds them. You can’t enter Brigadoon by looking for it directly, but you can’t enter it without wandering, either.
This post originally appeared on Food Riot, where I am a contributor.