Yessir, these are heady days for the ramp, that formerly humble Appalachian spring-tonic-turned haute cuisine ingredient. None other than Martha Stewart says she loves gathering the plants, and now that she’s off house arrest, her forays no doubt take her deeper into the woods. Blustery TV chef Emeril Lagasse, too, has turned into a booster-come-lately for the pungent herb, suggesting that his viewers braise it, grill it and – bam – kick it up a notch.
That’s all well and good, but you can bet that all the celebrity attention hasn’t gone to the heads of the organizers of the Haywood County Ramp Convention, whose predecessors were stuffing tow sacks with the wild onions fully decades before Martha Stewart was a twinkle in her daddy’s eye. The celebration, which returns Sunday, May 7, remains mulishly old-fashioned in this, its 73rd year.
The convention is sponsored by the Haywood Post #47 of the American Legion and is held at the post in Waynesville. Ramps will be sold both raw and cooked (in a variety of dishes, including the traditional scrambled eggs with ramps and potatoes with ramps); for the faint of taste bud, a sprinkling of ramp-free fare will also be available. Bluegrass, Southern Rock and the sounds of clogging will fill the air, mingling with the curiously pungent smell of ramps. Proceeds will go to local charities.
The event’s highlight is the crowning of ramp royalty, male and female. In former times, the Ramp King was picked by dint of his political connections. Today he wins by great shows of gastric fortitude: The man who would be king must emerge victorious from the convention’s ramp-eating contest, where whoever eats the most two-ounce bags of ramps wins. Compared to many eating contests, Haywood’s moment of truth is a marathon, lasting a full 10 minutes. And apparently, it ain’t pretty.
“When they say ‘Go,’ it’s something you never want to see again,” says Legion Commander Frank Lauer.
The Ramp Queen, by contrast, earns her tiara and sash by more genteel means. A week before the convention, organizers solicit essays from prospective queens of any age or persuasion, outlining their aspirations and suitability for the role.
“They’d probably have to love a ramp,” offers Clint Smith, the convention’s organizer.
Ramps, for those who are unfamiliar with them, are a wild relative of the leek and are native to coves and moist woods from Quebec to Georgia. Along with poke salad, creasy greens and railroad-bank asparagus, the ramp, Allium tricoccum, served historically as a welcome dose of spring greenery in diets propped up by salt pork.
In general appearance the plant favors lily-of-the-valley, a distantly related but poisonous plant. Its broad-bladed leaves lead downward to a crisp, white bulb, usually little more than a half-inch in diameter. But oh, what flavor, what lingering pungency comes in small packages! The taste is reckoned to lie somewhere between onion and garlic, but the persistent bouquet of the raw ramp on the consumer’s body is unique in most peoples’ experience.
“My husband used to take these spring trout-fishing trips all through the mountains with his friends,” says Jeanine Davis, specialty crops coordinator with N.C. State University. “They would eat ramps for basically every meal. He’d come home and I’d make him sleep on the couch for a few days.”
The plant’s odd name is thought to have originated in England, where, during the Middle Ages, the word “hramsa” was used to describe wild garlic. The Scots-Irish and English who settled much of the Appalachians brought the old name with them and applied it to a new (to them) but familiar plant.
In late-1920s Western North Carolina, descendants of those first settlers came together in service of the ramp to form the N.C. Society of the Friends of the Ramp. Early festivals were held at Black Camp Gap near Maggie Valley. Today, there are nearly 10 ramp festivals held throughout the upland South, along with a slew of ramp breakfasts and dinners at firehouses and rescue-squad buildings from West Virginia to Tennessee. For example, the Haywood event is followed by festivals in Flag Pond, Tenn., on May 13 (www.flagpond.com/festival/ramp/fest.htm) and Whitetop, Va., on May 21 (www.blueridgemusic.org).
The ramp’s value as a tonic and restorative was well known to the Cherokee and in turn passed down to the settlers. Today, studies are bearing out the plant’s medicinal value. Davis says research has shown that ramps grown in selenium-rich soil have cancer-fighting properties.
Ramping it up
All this love of the ramp has come at a cost, naturally. While the ramp’s range is widespread, in many places it has become rare due to increasing harvests and its propensity for slow growth. New restrictions are in place for the plant’s harvest on public lands. And the good news is that, spurred on by commercial promise, landowners are taking steps to cultivate ramps.
This spring, Davis and others will check on test plots of ramps planted in 2000 that should just now be reaching maturity. Success could mean a permanent place at the table for an honored Appalachian vegetable.
“They’re uniquely associated with our area,” says Davis. “They fit our heritage. If someone comes here from, say, California or Washington state, the ramp is quite a novelty.”
Meanwhile, in Waynesville, preparations for this weekend’s convention march on. Last year’s event drew 1,500 ramp fans; this year, Clint Smith says he expects to see closer to 2,000. Over a one-month period, Smith and others have taken to the woods to gather between 300 and 400 pounds of ramps for use at the convention. Soon, for Smith at least, it will be time to move on.
“Once a year’s about enough for ramps for me,” says Smith. “Trust me – once you spend about a month out there gathering and cleaning the things and you’re about psycho.”
The 73rd annual Ramp Convention begins at noon Sunday, May 7, and will be held at the Waynesville American Legion post (171 Legion Dr.). Tickets are $10 at the gate, $8 in advance, and include a free meal (or pay $5 at the gate for admission but no meal). Children 12 and under are free. For more information, including ticket-sales sites and directions, call 456-8691 or visit http://waynesvillelive.com/RampCon.htm.