Thursday, May 6, 2010

The Rise of the Lowly Ramp

Every fall, the annual Punkin’ Chunkin’ festival takes place in Nassau, Delaware. A friend of mine once speculated that this event got its start as the result of a bunch of guys standing around saying things like, “Hold my beer and watch this.” Whatever its origins, the event is now attended by thousands, drawing participants from all over the U.S. The objective is to see how far you can throw a pumpkin, and the techniques used range from gigantic air cannon to medieval catapults and trebuchets (think of a three-story whirligig on giant wooden wheels, designed to chuck boulders over castle ramparts). The 2008 record was set by an air cannon that launched a pumpkin just over three quarters of a mile.

Every spring, ramp festivals take place, most commonly in West Virginia, but also in a number of other states, including Tennessee, North Carolina, Virginia, and Pennsylvania. The plant honored at these festivals – eaten, rather than thrown – is a pungent relative of onions, garlic and chives, growing in North American woodlands from Nova Scotia to Georgia and as far west as Iowa and Minnesota. Like Delaware’s Punkin’ Chunkin’ event, these festivals are pretty down-to-earth affairs, typically held in April or May during the peak of the ramp’s brief growing season. Once pretty much restricted to the cooking traditions of rural Appalachia, ramps have recently ascended to a place of culinary honor and are now actively sought by foodies from New York to San Francisco, bringing prices from $10 to $20 a pound. Like morels and fiddlehead ferns – both of which have about the same season as ramps – these formerly obscure “little stinkers” have also begun to appear on the menus of upscale restaurants. Last spring, my wife and I had an appetizer at a local restaurant consisting of ramps, morels, and fava beans served over fettuccine. It was fantastic.

The April, 2009 issue of Bon Appetit gives some general cooking advice for ramps, along with detailed recipes for ramp and buttermilk biscuits with cracked coriander, ramp and sausage risotto, scrambled eggs with morels, ramps and asparagus, and seared salmon with linguine and ramp pesto. The April, 2008 issue of the now tragically defunct Gourmet gives a recipe for ramp soup, while the April, 2000 issue tells how to prepare both roasted chicken with ramps and potatoes, and spaghetti with ramps, and the 1999 French Laundry Cookbook includes a recipe for fava bean agnolotti with curry emulsion that uses ramps. Also known as wild leeks, ramps are discussed in Elizabeth Schneider’s book, Uncommon Fruits and Vegetables: A Common Sense Guide, where she offers the following advice: “Cook wild leeks in just about any way you would cultivated ones, but with discretion, as they are stronger.” She also notes that “although I am told that they are commonly consumed raw in ramp country, I would guess that their pungency would be too much for all but the most devoted.” In addition to these words of general advice, Schneider also gives recipes for wild leeks vinaigrette, shad stuffed with its roe and wild leeks, wild leek and seafood timbales with lime sabayon sauce, and a soup of wild leeks and potato with cheese toasts. Discovering ramps in our local Whole Foods grocery store last spring, my wife and I planned to try this last recipe for ourselves, but we made the unfortunate strategic mistake of not buying the ramps the day we saw them: by the time we checked the recipe and came back a few days later, they were all gone. This year, we were luckier: we grabbed the ramps as soon as we saw them and were able to try Schneider’s soup: it was delicious. We saved one ramp and I used it in the scrambled egg recipe at the end of this post.

Probably the best place to buy ramps is at a local farmer’s market or roadside produce stand, although they are sometimes available in grocery stores. As last year's Whole Foods experience emphasizes, however, it is important to grab them when you see them since their season is short and they have been “discovered” by a growing audience of those seeking new tastes. Ramps can also be ordered via the Internet (see, for example, Earthy Delights at ), but again, only during their short spring season.
Of course, to get the full ramp experience, there is no better way than to attend one of the local ramp festivals. One of the biggest is held in Cosby, Tennessee in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Begun in 1954 by the Cosby Ruritan Club of Cocke County, the ramp festival was undertaken as a publicity gimmick to increase tourism and it seems to have worked. The first year, the festival drew between 5,000 and 6,000 people, and the next year’s attendees included ex-President Harry Truman; in 1959, almost 30,000 people came, drawn in part by the presence of Tennessee Ernie Ford as a celebrity guest. The festival features lots of ramps, of course, along with country and bluegrass music, dancing, and a contest that selects and crowns a “Maid of the Ramps.” The Richwood Ramp Fest held in Richwood, West Virginia claims to be the oldest in the country, dating back to 1939. Their website ( ) features links to a lot of other websites, including those with places and dates for other ramp festivals and recipes from a vast array of sources (everything from cookbooks like Mom and Ramps Forever to Martha Stewart and Finally, a festival with one of the most unusual ranges of offerings is the Mason-Dixon Ramp Festival, held in Greene County, Pennsylvania, featuring ramp soup, ramp cheese, ramp kielbasa, and ramp wine.

These festivals have their European counterpart in the Calcotades held in the Catalan region of Northern Spain to celebrate calcots, a variety of scallion that is somewhat milder than an onion with an appearance something like a small leek. Their growing season is similar to that of ramps and they are traditionally roasted and served with grilled meats and a spicy dipping sauce. Like ramp festivals in the Southeastern U.S., these Calcotades are unique, local experiences.

Scrambled Eggs with Ramps, Ham, and Gruyere


1 large ramp
3 eggs
1 oz sliced ham
¼ cup grated Gruyere
1 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
¼ tsp salt
¼ tsp pepper

To prepare:

Rinse the ramp well, cut off the root, remove any wilted leaves, and chop into thin slices, including the bulb, stem, and leaves. Saute in olive oil with salt and pepper until soft.
Beat eggs and add to ramps, along with the ham, torn into small pieces. Stir mixture until almost done. Add Gruyere and continue stirring until cheese is melted and well blended. Serve immediately.

I served this dish with slices of a seeded wheat bread from my local Whole Foods that reminds me of the nut bread (nussbrot) I used to get in Switzerland. According to Dornenburg and Page (What to Drink with What You Eat, Bullfinch Press, New York, 2006), eggs and leeks (they don’t list ramps) go well with chardonnay, but their entry on eggs includes the warning, “avoid oak.” This was disappointing to me since my favorite chardonnay is Kendal Jackson’s, which my wine-friends regard as the standard for a “really oaky chardonnay.” Nevertheless, I went with Dornenburg and Page’s suggestion and paired the dish with a Hearldsburg Ranches Sonoma County “unoaked” 2007 chardonnay. Despite my personal affinity for oak, it proved to be an excellent choice.

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