Ramps, the Smell of Spring

ramps
Photos by Matthew T. Bradley

Some people would have you believe that fresh ramps and people who have recently eaten them have a disagreeable odor. But because I grew up in Western North Carolina, to me ramps will always be the sweet smell of spring.

As a schoolboy, all of my teachers disagreed. At some point each March my classmates and I were threatened with expulsion should we show up to class having eaten a ramp supper the night before. I saw a number of boys try and hold our teachers to their word, but none of them ever made it off the school grounds any sooner than the rest of us (though a few did spend the rest of their school day at a desk in the hallway).

The first English speakers introduced to Allium tricoccum by American Indians would have been familiar with Allium ursinum, which went by the common name of ramson. The place name Chicago is derived from chicagoua, the Miami-Illinois word for Allium tricoccum. Ramps continue to be highly visible in modern day American Indian cuisine. Wild onion dinners serve the dual purpose of facilitating Southeastern Indian social relations while also clearing Alliums off the fence lines before milking cows do.

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Like many highlanders, my grandfather likes his ramps best pan-fried with squirrel brains. The combination was never to my taste even before I left off eating red meat over a decade ago, a fact contributing to my grandfather’s conviction that I “don’t know what’s good.” More to my liking are the other two common Southern Appalachian stovetop combinations: ramps and scrambled eggs and ramps and fried potatoes.

I thought I had given up my spring tonic of ramps for the foreseeable future when I relocated to Berkshire County a few years ago. So perhaps you can imagine my pleasure during my first spring here upon finding a ramp pesto and mushroom omelet listed as one of the specials on the menu of a toney brunch establishment in the area.

The next spring I made a trip into the woods to see if i could fi nd a patch where i might dig a few of my own. ramps reproduce poorly by seed and slowly by bulb division, requiring an estimated 10 years to recover after the 10% harvest of a patch. given their long-standing popularity in southern Appalachia, this means that ramp patches are few and far between there. i was gob smacked at the ease with which i was able to fi nd them in the woods of Berkshire County on that initial outing and ever since. i have been able to gather enough to branch out beyond scrambled eggs and fried potatoes. i learned that ramps stir-fry nicely, and have become especially fond of them in combination with soba, soy sauce and some red pepper flakes.

My friends and family back in western north Carolina, where eating ramps marks you as salt of the earth, didn’t know quite what to make of it when i told them that ramps are trendy cuisine in new england. And to be perfectly honest, i sometimes don’t quite know what to make of it, either.

But i do know that they taste delicious on either end of the Appalachians, and that they continue to smell like spring to me.

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