”These hills have other secrets. One of them is a small, feisty cousin of garlic known as the ramp...For reasons not entirely clear to the outsider, ramps are still prized by those who know where to find them in the earliest days of spring. The emergence of ramps elicits joyous, stinky ramp festivals throughout the region.Barbara KingsolverAnimal, Vegetable, Miracle, 2007.
A lot has changed in our food culture since Barbara Kingsolver first wrote her memoir about eating locally sourced food. The cultural movement to eat locally and organically has a long history which has had ebbs and flows in the popular consciousness over the years. In the 15 years since Animal, Vegetable, Miracle was first published, farm-to-table restaurants have become more prevalent around the country, including one opened by Kingsolver herself.
Another change is the fact that ramps are no longer an Applachaian “secret.” In May of 2021, Vox published an article headlined “Ramps, spring’s trendiest produce, explained,” stating that “Ramp-obsessed urbanites have turned what was once a relatively obscure allium most popular in the Appalachian region into something that bougie New Yorkers hunt down at restaurants and farmers markets every April.”
The Recorder (Monterey, Va.), 13 May 1985.
“Relatively obscure” is of course a subjective description. Urban New Yorkers have a long history of being confused about what exactly the plant is. In 1985, a New York native wrote to the Monterey (Va.)-based newspaper The Recorder asking for clarification after seeing a picture in the paper:
I am 63 years old, went through three wars, in my 40th year of married life, 37 years of riding the subway and a full head of hair, and I still don’t know what’s a ramp. To me a ramp is an incline that people or cars use…I studied that picture for hours trying to figure out a ramp and I think it’s a fish something like a sardine…so let me get back to sleeping nights, and tell me what’s a ramp.
Of course, ramps are known to those close to their natural growing grounds (ranging from northern Georgia to southern Canada) and have long been foraged by the Cherokee peoples. Known as “wild leek” in some parts of the country, Allium tricoccum comes in two varieties both generally found in wooded areas. A perennial, it grows small clusters of about four bulbs and when left alone to flower produces a small group of blooms that range from white to yellow. But they are not prized for their beauty, instead it’s for the pungent bulb. Ramp festivals have a long history in Appalachia where it is plentiful during April and May. Richwood, West Virginia, holds the title of “Ramp Capital of the World” and is home to the National Ramp Association.
In Virginia, they supposedly once overran (to some visitor’s chagrin) the lawn of Capitol Hill in Richmond. Today it is the focus of many festivals such as the Whitetop (Va.) Mountain Ramp Festival, which benefits the Mt. Rogers Volunteer Fire Department & Rescue Squad each year and several other events that similarly spread the love and help raise money for local causes.
How does one cook a ramp? Well, you can just eat it raw if you wish but perhaps warn those around you so they can hold their breath when you speak. Otherwise, an article in Mountain Laurel from Meadows of Dan, Virginia, suggests, “fried, boiled, in soups, stews and omelets, minced and added to beans or home fries.” Barbara McCallum, author of Reekin’ Ramp Recipes, has recipes for the more basic ramp soup, ramp chef’s salad, and Spanish rampin’ meatloaf as well as ramp vichyssoise, rampion raiponce, and boeuf chou fleur et ramps.
Somewhat ironically, the intense want for ramps by those outside their local growing area has caused some of the very issues Kingsolver discusses in her book. At the time of her writing, ramps were still a relative “secret” nationally, partly due to their short harvest time, but as more people in urban centers chase down the wild onions they have begun to be over-harvested. Eat your veggies, but also make sure you ethically harvest them so you can continue to eat them in the future.
A lot of things have changed since the publication of Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. If you have read the book at any point or are interested in discussing local food in Virginia, join us on January 18, 2022 on Zoom for a discussion with the Common Ground Virginia History Book Group. Registration is free but required.
Every third Tuesday of the month, 6-7:30 p.m., Virtual
- January 18th – Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver
- February 15th – Selections from The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story by Nikole Hannah-Jones
- March 15th – Pure America: Eugenics and the Making of Modern Virginia by Elizabeth Catte (Featuring Elizabeth Catte)
- April 19th – A Brave and Cunning Prince: The Great Chief Opechancanough and the War for America by James Horn (Featuring James Horn)
- May 17th – The Devil’s Half Acre: The Untold Story of How One Woman Liberated the South’s Most Notorious Slave Jail by Kristen Green
- June 21st – The Appalachian Trail: A Biography by Philip D’Anieri (Featuring Philip D’Anieri)
- ATTRA: Sustainable Agriculture (National Center for Appropriate Technology)
- Future Harvest (Chesapeake Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture)
- How to Start a Farm (USDA)
- Southeastern African American Farmers’ Organic Network
- Virginia Beginning Farmer and Rancher Coalition (Virginia Tech)
- Virginia Small Farm Resource Center (Virginia State University)
- Women, Food, and Agriculture Network
- Agricultural photographs (1939 World’s Fair Photograph Collection)
- Burley tobacco photographs, Washington County, VA (Virginia State Chamber of Commerce)
- Canning labels (Library of Virginia Special Collections)
- Chicken / poultry images (Library of Virginia Special Collections)
- Livestock photographs (Virginia State Chamber of Commerce)
- Map of Washington Co., Virginia (Charles Rufus Boyd, 1890)
- Southwest Virginia photographs (Virginia State Chamber of Commerce)
- Dabney, Joseph Earl. Smokehouse Ham, Spoon Bread & Scuppernong Wine: The Folklore and Art of Southern Appalachian Cooking. Nashville, TN: Cumberland House, 1998.
- Daniel, Pete. Dispossession: Discrimination Against African American Farmers in the Age of Civil Rights. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013.
- Ferris, Marcie Cohen. The Edible South: The Power of Food and the Making of an American Region. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2014.
- Levering, Frank., and Wanda Urbanska. Simple Living: One Couple’s Search for a Better Life. New York: Viking, 1992.
- Lundy, Ronni. Cornbread Nation 3: Foods of the Mountain South. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005.
- Minick, Jim. The Blueberry Years: A Memoir of Farm and Family. New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2010.
- Sauceman, Fred William. Buttermilk & Bible Burgers: More Stories from the Kitchens of Appalachia. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2014.
- Stoll, Steven. Ramp Hollow: The Ordeal of Appalachia. New York: Hill and Wang, 2017.
- Thompson, Charles D. Going over Home: A Search for Rural Justice in an Unsettled Land. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2019.
- Tullock, John H. Appalachian Cooking: New and Traditional Recipes. New York: The Countryman Press, a Division of W. W. Norton & Company, 2018.
- Twitty, Michael. The Cooking Gene: A Journey through African American Culinary History in the Old South. New York: Amistad, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers, 2017.
Selection from the cover of Southeastern U. S. Vegetable Crop Handbook (2019) published by the Cooperative Extension Service, Virginia.