Megan Scott has been both a cheese maker and a goat herder. Currently, she’s working with her husband, John Becker, on updates to the American classic cookbook ‘The Joy of Cooking’ and has recently overseen production of their new website. She lives, writes, and keeps chickens in the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee.
Growing up, I was given doses of family stories the way some kids are given Flintstone vitamins. As my family hails from Appalachia, I heard the requisite tales of ancestral moonshining, of apple orchards tucked between the hills, and of sylvan homesteads brimming with dent corn, collard greens, and freshly laid eggs.
My grandfather recounted an expedition for ginseng (or “sang,” as the old-timers called it) when he and a fellow forager upset a hornet nest and had to leave their bounty on the hillside, only to have another hunter poach it from their stomping grounds before they could return for it.
He’s told me about how his father preserved peaches in homemade brandy (which I surmise is just his polite term for shine). He’s showed me what creasy greens look like (not to be confused with greasy beans — don’t ask) and how to find them in fallow fields.
I’ve eaten the fruits of my heritage many times: crisp, thin cornbread (on very special occasions with cracklins, and never ever with sugar), October beans stewed with ham hocks, collard greens cooked to within an inch of their lives, pound cakes that could sink a stout ship, and sweet tea that takes the enamel right off your teeth.
But one thing I never heard about or tasted growing up was a tiny vegetable with a large personality and an even greater reputation: the ramp.
I don’t know why my family never mentioned ramps to me. Perhaps because they didn’t like ramps; this seems to be the consensus among many true-blue Southerners, in spite of the fact that you’re supposed to like them now.
If you read much about ramps — and for a vegetable with such a large personality, there isn’t much written about them — you’ll find accounts of schoolboys getting sent home because they smelled so strongly of wild onion. Or of boys with bad breath trying to kiss little girls. Or of wives complaining that their husbands seemed to carry the rank miasma of ramp stench everywhere they went in the early spring.
Ramps were not a popular vegetable, at least among womenfolk.
Then there is perhaps the stigma of having to forage for food. My grandmother tells of having to shell black walnuts to earn money for her family. Unable to wash the black stains off her fingers, she went to school in shame because her hands were a visible manifestation of her family’s poverty. Perhaps ramps spoke to the same sensibility of pride and dishonor among rural Southerners.
In any case, ramps were a delight unknown to me as a child. Now they’re a special treat, something eaten for a couple of fleeting weeks in April. In a society of September asparagus and December strawberries, that’s a rare thing indeed.
Ramps are one of the few specialty foods that are truly wild-harvested. Ramps can, in fact, be propagated, but they have many limitations as a crop. Sown from seed, ramps have a 6- to 18-month germination window, which is very much dependent upon weather patterns, and they can take seven years to reach maturity.
Ramps grow in heavily wooded, deciduous forests, most often at higher elevations, ruling out the use of heavy machinery and generally making them a difficult crop to grow in large numbers. They can also be grown from adult plants that are transplanted, but to my knowledge, the only way to do this is to harvest wild colonies.
Imagine my surprise, then, and not a little consternation when I read of ramps at Whole Foods. Where did they come from? Who harvested them? Were they wild or propagated?
Only 10 percent of a stand of ramps should be dug (and just as tobacco is “primed,” not picked, ramps are “dug,” not picked) in order to ensure the stability of that colony. This is where my skepticism comes in as far as the widespread use of ramps is concerned. Many are concerned about where their fish comes from, their bananas, their coffee beans. This same concern should be extended to ramps and other wild plants that are being decimated by the national appetite for a very regional vegetable.
Even insiders, those who grew up around ramps, rarely abide by the 10-percent rule these days. The North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service has noted this change in foraging behavior. Whereas once foragers would dig a few bulbs and leave the rest of the stand in place, modern ramp hunters, driven by demand and the promise of chefs willing to pay premiums for wild-harvested ramps, will clear our a stand completely. This practice has a certain finality to it; when ramps are completely harvested from an area, they’re gone.
Perhaps tangential, but important nonetheless, is the regional culture surrounding the ramp. Ramp festivals are commonplace in the southern Appalachians, and this is well and good, but the bucolic, jovial atmosphere of these smelly celebrations belies the severe, even tragic, poverty of the regions in which they take place. Not to mention the fact that these festivals, over time, can decimate the local ramp population to the point of extinction.
As with many now-popular Southern foods, ramps and ramp cookery are derived from a culture where poverty is often the norm. The people of the remote corners of the Appalachian mountains have long been known for their stolid resistance to change, and for a dogged, sometimes hostile opposition to outside influence.
Toward the late 1800s, outsiders began to try to reform the Southern highlanders — their dress, their speech, their food — while mining cultural artifacts, from hand-sewn coverlets (known as “kivvers”) to whittled objects, to sell to the wealthy. Today, that exploitation has taken the form of food.
While quick to bemoan the obesity, illiteracy, rampant drug addiction, and chronic poverty experienced by many living in very rural areas, many are content to take regional riches (ramps, for one) and consume them with relish and general disregard for where, in fact, they came from.
Another persistent worry is that ramps and other culturally significant foods are more than trendy; they have become symbols of status. Ramp-eaters consist primarily of two groups: Appalachian “locals” who grew up with the smelly root, and those wealthy enough to purchase this gourmet allium.
While many, if not most, foodies profess some degree of culinary activism, or at least agree with it and promote it, the intensive focus on hard-to-find, expensive, and erudite ingredients is ultimately alienating to those very individuals we endeavor to help. It establishes a vocabulary and promotes a pantry that is foreign to the vast majority of individuals.
This is a harsh, perhaps far too harsh, summation of ramp-lovers who are physically estranged from where ramps are grown and harvested. I don’t mean to condemn those who mean well and who simply love ramps. In an ideal world, everyone would be able to taste and enjoy them and, better yet, understand a little of where they came from.
But as it is, ramp cultivation is a very limited endeavor. Those who harvest the plant rarely abide by the 10-percent rule, and many harvest the plant illegally from the national forests. And those who purchase ramps far afield seem blissfully ignorant of the state of those who live closest to the little allium.
I don’t mean to generalize. I know that many, if not most, of the foodies who seek out ramps are very conscientious people, and perhaps obsessing over the cultural milieu of a vegetable is bad form on my part. I also don’t wish to imply that I think southern Appalachia is a backward place. (That’s the region I am specifically referring to here; ramps grow from Georgia to Canada, but I can speak only to western North Carolina and Virginia and eastern Tennessee.) I have been fortunate to know many wonderful, intelligent, and resourceful individuals here, some of them close neighbors and dear friends, some of them family members. But after living in a place where poverty is painted on a canvas of incredible natural resources and beauty, it is hard to look away from the unspoken exploitation that takes place here.
Of course, my treatise expresses nothing new. Food activists have sung the song of sustainability and origins for decades now. It is only now, however, that ramps are in need of defending. The historical and current exploitation of the Appalachian region is possible largely because of the silence of its citizens, and this silence, in large part, is due to an age-old poverty in which survival, not justice, is sought after.
Ramps have become notorious, but has the economic deficiency of our Southern highlanders? If we purport to seek justice through what we eat, then perhaps the ramp needs to be reexamined.
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