Ramp Festivals a Sure Sign of Appalachian Spring


“Well, a ramp is a little wild onion that grows on top the mountains ‘round here. A lot of people, they eat them raw. We’d cut them up, put them in eggs, put fatback in there and fry them up real good. A lot of people pickles them things. I guess I’ve eat a thousand bushels of them things. They won’t kill you. I freeze a few. I told you I can everything but I do freeze a few ramps so I can have them year ‘round. But I like them. They’re awful good.”

— Haywood County resident and storyteller Carl Presnell, from the CD recording of An Unclouded Day: Stories and Songs of the Southern Appalachian Mountains (used with permission from the NC State Humanities Extension project called The North Carolina Language and Life Project).

If you travel enough miles in Southern Appalachia during the spring, you are bound to run into a ramp festival. The little onion-like plant is one of the first to pop out of the earth after the ground thaws in March (later at higher elevations). Mountain folks from West Virginia to Tennessee have been relying on the pungent plant for generations as a replacement for onions and garlic when the summer vegetable larders begin to run low.

In reality, the ramp is a closer cousin to the leek than the onion. Botanists consider it a wild leek of the genus Allium. Like the leek, the ramp has a strong odor that quickly transfers itself to the breath of its eater. Eat enough of them and — like garlic — the odor will actually start coming out of your pores!

That pungent aroma hasn’t deterred people in the Appalachians from celebrating the little ramp. In fact, ramp festivals are bigger and better than they ever were, some attracting visitors from hundreds of miles away.

Once at a ramp festival, you can smell the delectable — if slightly stinky — smell of ramps frying in grease. You’ll be able to eat your fill of every kind of ramp dish imaginable at these festivals while chatting with folks who have made the vegetable a staple of their family’s diet for generations.

Ramp festivals are as varied as the people who host them but many feature ramp eating contests, ramp queen pageants, plenty of live music and lots of ramp based delicacies. If you really want to eat ramps correctly, go to a festival and let one of the old-timers who knows his or her way around a skillet do the cooking.

Country cooks of the Appalachians have a variety of uses for ramps. Some eat them raw and use them as a replacement for out-of-season onions. Others chop up the leaves when the plant is still young and tender and cook them with them with bits of ham and eat them with some vinegar — much like you would eat turnip greens.

Many traditional recipes for ramps call for them to be fried and added to eggs or canned tuna.

“Fry them hot and fast because of the smell,” said Clifford Connor in The Foxfire Book of Appalachian Cookery. “Add a little salt, pepper, eggs, or potatoes in with them for flavor to your own fancy. Most important, go into solitary in the woods somewheres and stay for two or three weeks because nobody can stand your breath after you’ve eaten them.”

Although the ramp has long been a delicacy exclusive to us lucky folks in the Southern Appalachians, the word of its succulent appeal has “leeked” out to the world at large. Food TV Network chefs Bobby Flay, Emeril Lagasse and Mario Batali have all aired shows featuring ramp recipes. All three agree that there is no substitute for its pungent flavor — maybe that’s one of the reasons that raw ramps sell for $10 to $15 in New York.


Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Leave a Comment