By Scott Hutcheson
— In many parts of the U.S., ramps, also known as wild leeks, are the very first edible vegetation to spring forth from the ground. A member of the garlic/onion family, they look like a scallion but have broader flat leaves. Like their cousins they add a pungent, but delicious layer to such dishes as soups and casseroles.
Ramps grow wild, but are increasingly being cultivated to meet the demands of chefs and consumers. Over the last few years, they’ve begun to appear on the menus of some of the top restaurants in the nation. Ramps may be a favorite-come-lately for foodies, but regular folk have known about them for a long time. The first recorded mention of them was in 1530. The name comes from the old English word “rams” or “ramson.” the name for wild garlic.
In Appalachia, ramps are especially popular, and several communities have festivals to celebrate ramp season. Cosby, Tenn., has been home to an annual ramp festival for more than 50 years. The celebration includes music, dancing, campaigning politicians, and each year a young woman is crowned “Maid of the Ramps.”
For years, folklore has attributed medicinal properties to ramps. As it turns out, they are indeed high in vitamins A and C and also have the same cholesterol-reducing properties as garlic. An Oregon State University professor studied the effectiveness of ramps in cancer prevention.
Whether you’ve been familiar with ramps for a long time or are just learning about them now, they represent a terrific way to usher in spring. Use them just about any way you would use leeks or scallions. If you are not fortunate enough to find the wild ones, you can visit a winter farmer’s market and perhaps find them there. They can also be ordered online and shipped to your door by Earthy Delights (www.earthy.com).
If you are old enough, you might remember a time when many foods could only be obtained seasonally. I remember when I was very young, we would eat strawberries with abandon when it was strawberry season and the same would go for watermelon. A global food system and new technological advances now make it possible to get anything anytime. Ramps are one of the last few holdovers of those earlier times — I hope they don’t get too popular. As much as I like them, I would be a little sad to see them at my local supermarket in February. For now, I’m going to savor them in a simple Appalachian favorite called Ramps ‘n Taters, and when they’re gone, they’re gone — at least until next April.