Spring for some is a crocus peeking through the snow or the sighting of a robin after a long hard winter, while others insist that it is the burst of purple that flowers on the Eastern Redbud tree. But for many natives, the harvest of ramps in West Virginia and the subsequent onslaught of ramp celebrations, festivals, and dinners is the only sure sign that spring has sprung.
Allium tricoccum, wild leek, wild onion, spring tonic, or most commonly, the ramp is a wild plant that grows in the mountains of Appalachia. It resembles a scallion and tastes like a cross between an onion and garlic. More often than not, they are charged with having an offensively pungent smell. “In early April, step out on your porch and point your nose in this direction, and you just might smell them, ” jokes Helvetia resident Betty Biggs.
As soon as the snow begins to melt, usually by the last week in March, the Appalachian delicacy gets transformed into traditional West Virginia fare. Products such as ramp jam, ramp wine, ramp dressing, and ramp vinegar start making their way into the marketplace. Simultaneously ramp dinners and festivals start showing up on community calendars.
The Feast of the Ramson, held in Richwood, marks its 71st anniversary this spring. It is known throughout the state as the granddaddy of all ramp festivals. The festival’s organizer for the past five years, Vikki Mayse, proudly boasts, “We are the oldest ramp feed in West Virginia.” And with approximately 1500 attendees, it takes roughly 200 pounds of ramps to feed feast-goers. Every type of ramp dish is served. Vikki says, “We have steamed and fried ramps, ramps with ham, bacon, potatoes, brown beans, and cornbread.” They also serve ramp-free desserts. But the mouth-watering menu isn’t the only thing that keeps people coming back year after year; there is also a large craft show, local music, and activities for children.
Festivals aren’t the only place to find a ramp dinner in West Virginia. The spring onion has made its way onto some of the states most discriminating culinary menus including the one at Roanoke’s Stonewall Resort. The resort’s Executive Chef Dale Hawkins has built a reputation for putting a heavy emphasis on local foods and has been instrumental in creating a regional cuisine called “New Appalachian Cuisine.” Growing up on a family farm in Rock Cave, his cooking philosophy places an emphasis on local food and traditions. “I developed a deep appreciation for the seasonality of food and traditions at a young age thanks to the tutelage of my parents and the parishioners of the Rock Cave community,” says Hawkins.
It is that very commitment that inspired him to create his “Celebration of Spring Tonics” at Stonewall Resort. The celebration highlights ramps along with other spring treasures like the morel mushroom, asparagus, rhubarb, and pea shoots. Each year, Hawkins turns the ramp into appetizing creations like his Hearts of Romaine Salad with Roasted Ramp and Anchovy, Roasted Five Onion and Ramp Chowder, and Fried Potatoes with Ramps and Smoked Bacon.
But any secret worth keeping doesn’t stay a secret long so it should come as no surprise that ramps are now a prized delicacy. “Chefs in the larger cities now clamor for the short seasoned alliums and pay as much as $15 a pound,” says Hawkins. A quick search on the Internet will reveal that celebrity chefs like Bobby Flay, Mario Battali, Emeril Lagasse, and Rocco DiSpirito all have recipes that incorporate ramps. Even Martha Stewart has jumped onto the ramp bandwagon.
But West Virginians have long celebrated this pungent wild onion. Ask any ramp savvy resident of West Virginia where to find the most unique ramp experience and the response is almost always a resounding “Helvetia.” This tiny Swiss community, centrally located in Randolph County, is attributed with being a quaint, peaceful retreat from a fast paced world. That same feeling of charm and community spills over to its Annual Ramp Supper held on the last Saturday of each April. Chef Dale Hawkins maintains the Helvetia Ramp Supper is one of his favorite festivals.
There any many well reputed ramp events across the state that take the meaning of destination dining to a whole new level, but it isn’t necessary to travel far to enjoy a ramp dinner. It would be more of a challenge to find a county that doesn’t have a ramp dinner than one that does. And each organization is proud of their dinner and what makes it unique. Sam Tanner, of the Washington Bottom Ramp Feed, proudly proclaims, “Our dinner is all-you-can-eat and served family style so no one leaves hungry.” While Lucille Kines, of the Kasson Ruritan group in Nestorville, insists, “it’s our sassafras tea that keeps people driving here from miles away.”
Whether you’re looking for a culinary experience that elevates the celebrated ramp to new heights or one that takes you down the street to support a local organization, West Virginia offers something for everyone.
via Joy Bell