The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

April 19, 2013

Ramps, that wonderfully pungent tonic of springtime

Point Blank column

By John Blankenship
Columnist

— You can’t eat just one of the plants that grow in spring, the ones that look like a leek, and usually have two broad, bright green leaves. Perhaps that’s why aficionados call them by their plural: ramps.

How else would you describe this tasty treat that has become something of an Appalachian trademark for dinners and spring cookouts all across the Mountain State?

It is said that the folks living downwind within several miles of the ramp festivals can’t hide from the odors. The paint, the story goes, curls and peels in the kitchens where the ramps are cleaned and cooked.

Another major problem with ramps is the way people smell after they eat them. Eat more than two of the plants and you risk olfactory outrage. (Ramp essence can exude from a diner’s breath and pores in rank fashion.)

Ronald Richmond of Beaver isn’t bothered by the acrid aroma of ramps, however.

“Eat them raw and they taste like a green onion, maybe a little stronger,” says the veteran gardener. “Cook ’em up with scrambled eggs and bacon drippings and they’re even better. Add a pone of cornbread and you’ve got a good meal.”

Some ramp enthusiasts have a patch of ramps growing near their backyard gardens. “Set them out and they’ll scatter everywhere,” Richmond says. “They re-seed themselves and come up again every year.”

For others, ramps are a kind of spring tonic. According to some old-timers, after folks have been lying around all winter, they need something to get the poison out of their system. The ramp smell might bother the other person, but it doesn’t necessarily bother the one who is eating the pungent onion-like plants.

A premier annual ramp festival is held each April in Richwood. This year’s event will get under way on Saturday at 10:30 a.m.

But the state boasts of a variety of ramp feeds during the spring season, when dinners are sponsored by churches, volunteer fire departments, schools and civic organizations.

Menus range from the simple down-home-style cornbread, ramps, fried potatoes, ham and beans (sometimes even sassafras tea) all the way up to dinners with music, dancing and general entertainment.

I recall that in the 1950s, a pretty girl from a nearby hollow was not allowed to sit near the teacher’s desk after the student ate her ramp sandwich for lunch.

Ramps (Allium tricoccum) are members of the lily family. Patrons of the pungent plants maintain they smell “just wonderful.”

Others, not so enamored with the woodland product, argue that they “stink to high heaven.”

Most ramp enthusiasts, though, eat them whenever they can get their hands on them. That’s usually for about a month during early spring. (Some ramp fiends even have been known to freeze the leftovers and hoard them until later in the year.)

It’s ironic that the ramp is a member of the lily family.

The first time I encountered the interesting treat was in 1967, when I met a petite brown-eyed Lilly from Daniels who asked me to dinner. The reason, she later told me, was that I looked like I could use a home-cooked meal.

It turned out that her daddy liked ramps. It was in April, and he cooked up a batch for supper — scrambled eggs and toast and ramps.

I had only taken a few bites, when the room started to swim around me. I saw giant purple spots on the kitchen wall. Voices around me seemed to swirl from the bottom of a barrel.

I asked to be excused.

For several days, I didn’t have much of an appetite.

I didn’t call a physician for fear that he’d diagnose some gastronomic disorder.

My body ached, and my skin smelled like … well, onions.

I was too embarrassed to call my girlfriend, though I longed to confide to her that I wasn’t angry with her papa for trying to poison me.

As the months went by, I gradually won the girl’s family over, and they forgot my social blunder.

Later, they offered me their daughter’s hand.

We’ve never talked about my ramp faux pas to this day.

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Top o’ the morning!

— Blankenship is a columnist for The Register-Herald. E-mail: jabbb@suddenlink.net