I found this article from a 1985 edition of The New York Times. What a great read!
Come April in West Virginia everyone looks to the hills. For some, red-bud, dogwood and the first tinge of tender green are the attraction. For others the pleasure is gustatory. They know that spring in the Appalachians is ramp season.
The ramp, otherwise known as wild leek or Allium tricoccum, is a member of the lily family. With broad, pointed leaves it looks much like a lily of the valley, though it has a stem and bulb more like a scallion, another member of the lily family. Like a scallion, one of its characteristics is a strong odor. In fact, odor is probably the most noticeable thing about the ramp. In pungency and power of penetration it surpasses even those other members of the lily family, onions, leeks and garlic.
Once the roots have been cut off, no amount of plastic wrapping, not even a styrofoam cooler, can contain the smell. In Richwood, W. Va., the self- proclaimed Ramp Capital of the World, Jim Comstock, publisher of the local newspaper, The West Virginia Hillbilly, once mixed ramp juice with the ink for his press to publicize the town’s ramp feast. Local lore has it that postal workers fell ill from the smell of the papers they had to handle.
As for the taste, raw ramps are not recommended, except to the stout hearted or to someone who may suffer from sinus congestion. Cooked ramps, on the other hand, can be delicious, rather like spinach or kale prepared with garlic. But there is no denying that even cooked ramps are potent. If you have difficulty with greens, garlic or onions, you had best proceed with caution when it comes to ramps.
Otherwise, the traditional dinner is not an occasion for restraint. According to Hyer Sutton, the mayor of Richwood, some former West Virginians ”get so wrapped up in ramps” that they plan their vacations around the event, coming to Richwood from as far away as Hawaii, New Jersey and Texas. Some ramp fans drive up from Florida for the weekend and down from Ohio for the day for all-you-can- eat dinners that are served from 11 A.M. to about 5 P.M. The meals usually include such traditional West Virginia fare as ham, sausage, cornbread, beans, potatoes, cake and coffee or sassafras tea. Dinner tickets cost about $5, which is one reason for the popularity of the event.
Another reason is purely social. It’s not often that residents have occasion to celebrate in this area of West Virginia, for times are generally tough economically, but that does not dampen the spirits of ramp eaters. At some feasts – in Eleanor and Clay, for instance – food remains the focus of the event. At others, festivities have been extended. Richwood begins its annual feast day at 10 A.M. with a 10-kilometer race. Running those 6.25 miles is one way to work up an appetite. For the rest of the day, while dinners are being served, handcrafts are sold at a bazaar and country musicians provide street entertainment.
Other states also hold ramp festivals. Some are on a larger scale, such as the one in Cosby, Tenn., which attracts up to 60,000 participants, and some are much smaller, such as the one in Alfred, N. Y., which involves only the 300 or so members of the community. But nowhere else is the ramp tradition more firmly rooted than in Richwood, the headquarters of the National Ramp Association. Ramp feasting as an event began about 1921 when some Richwood men met for a cookout during ramp season. Eventually their gathering moved indoors and came under the jurisdiction of the Chamber of Commerce. The success of the Richwood event inspired other communities to start their own dinners, usually as a way of raising money for a local organization.
The custom of eating ramps may have begun with early English immigrants. They were were probably familiar with similar wild plants in Britain, such as the rampion (a bellflower with an edible root) or the ramson (a variety of garlic). Whether the settlers discovered them on their own or were introduced to them by the Indians, as some say, ramps must have provided a welcome change from their winter diet of salted meat and dried corn and beans. Ramps, which contain vitamins C and A, were also valued for their tonic effect.
Though they once flourished throughout the Eastern mountain regions and in parts of the Midwest, ramps have slowly retreated over the years to the more remote, higher elevations in the Appalachian Mountains. Even within West Virginia, ramps grow in abundance only in the cooler climate and richer soil of the area around Richwood, especially in Monongahela National Forest. There before the trees have leafed out, they form a carpet of green.
Late March or early April is usually the beginning of the season, when the plants have reached a height of about 8 to 10 inches. By May the leaves are too tough and the flavor too strong for even the most die-hard ramp eater. Digging ramps involves some skill and requires fortitude, because spring in the mountains can be cold and damp. The ramps must be carefully pried out with the roots intact. Keeping next year’s crop in mind, the experienced digger tries to thin a good patch rather than eradicate it, so the plants will grow back bigger and better the following spring.
Not all visitors will have the opportunity or the desire to dig their own ramps, but those who attend a ramp dinner will usually be able to buy some at the door, for anywhere from $1.50 to $3 a pound. The plants will keep for three to four days in a cooler or a refrigerator. They should be washed thoroughly and the roots sliced off before using. Then they can be cooked whole or chopped, green parts and all.
West Virginians generally prefer to prepare their ramps by parboiling them whole, draining them, frying them in bacon grease and adding a scrambled egg, crumbled cooked bacon and a sprinkling of vinegar. Some Richwooders have developed more elaborate recipes for such things as macaroni and cheese with ramps, ramp pie and ramp salad. Basically, ramps can be substituted with discretion in almost any recipe calling for leeks or scallions. They can also be cooked, then canned in vinegar or frozen.
After indulging in ramps, one question often arises: Is there any way to combat ramp breath? Suggestions for antidotes include eating a banana or sucking a clove or a lemon, but nothing is entirely effective. If you have an important date in the evening, the only foolproof tactic is abstention.