The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

April 21, 2013

Richwood throws a smelly but savory feast

By John Blankenship
Register-Herald Reporter

RICHWOOD — Normally, the little Nicholas County town of Richwood has about 2,500 residents, but each year in April the population swells to nearly double as more than 2,000 ramp lovers descend on the community eager for a taste of their favorite fare.

“The ramp festival is what we’re all about,” explained Beth Donaldson, 58, of Richwood. “We’re the oldest ramp feed in West Virginia. That’s certainly one of our most cherished claims to fame. We routinely attract visitors from all over the nation.”

It’s a fact that one of the monikers of the town is “The Ramp Capital of the World,” according to Donaldson. “We believe that we have one of the longest-running festivals — and certainly some of the best ramp cuisine in the country.”

The Richwood Feast of the Ransom began in the 1930s, according to Raymond Chapman, 76, of Richwood. The veteran ramp enthusiast has been instrumental in helping to carry on the community’s traditions for decades.

“We are proud of our heritage, and we all work together to make our ramp fest one of the state’s most popular attractions,” Chapman said, adding: “The ramps grown around Richwood seem to taste better than those grown anywhere else.”

The annual banquet is one of hundreds of small-town fairs and ceremonial meals held each spring throughout Appalachia, but the Nicholas County get-together enjoys the distinction of being heralded as “the granddaddy of all ramp gatherings.”

In this country town, the person who doesn’t eat ramps is the one who smells a little funny — definitely an outsider.

As for the ramp itself, it is sometimes labeled a wild leek, a kind of wild onion native to North America. Though the bulb resembles that of a scallion, the beautiful, flat, broad leaves set it apart.

According to John Mariani, author of “The Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink,” the word ramp comes from “rams” or “ramson,” an Elizabethan dialect rendering of the wild garlic. The word was first mentioned in English print in the 1530s, but was used earlier by English immigrants of the southern Appalachian Mountains.

When spring arrives in the hills of West Virginia, it’s definitely time to “ramp up” with the famous odiferous member of the lily family, an oniony treat ideally suited for fests and dinners.

And whether you like them boiled, raw or fried in bacon grease, the ramps provide a springtime tonic that’s guaranteed to stimulate your heart and thin your blood, according to Donaldson, who holds the victuals are healthy and safe for consumption, no matter how they’re prepared in the kitchen. “Ramps keep you young,” she said. “They’re a good spring tonic.”

Throughout Appalachia, country chefs usually serve ramps (steamed or fried) with scrambled eggs, brown beans, fried potatoes, cornbread and ham or bacon.

Saturday’s affair marked the 75th annual Richwood Ramp Festival. Preparations for the ramp feed, as it is sometimes affectionately called, began about a week ago with workers cleaning and chilling nearly half a ton of the pungent plants.

The value of the wild onions cannot be overestimated, according to Betty Tyler, 83, of Richwood. “Some people on their death bed still crave a mess of ramps, one last meal,” explained the Tyler family matriarch. “People return to the festival year after year, not only for the ramps but also for the fellowship.”