Mountain Tradition: Eating Ramps in Springtime

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Photo: Deep fried ramps sign at Mason-Dixon Ramp Fest in Mt. Morris, Pennsylvania circa 2010, courtesy of MrBill3
Photo: Deep fried ramps sign at Mason-Dixon Ramp Fest in Mt. Morris, Pennsylvania circa 2010, courtesy of MrBill3

Today’s inhabitants of modern America often take for granted the creative genius and true miracle that is our daily lives.  Thanks to a global market and an infrastructure that is unlike anything seen previously in human history, Americans enjoy green produce year round as well as access to essential vitamins needed to survive the difficult cold and flu season.

Prior to less than a century ago, this was hardly the case.  The onset of winter meant that the intrepid explorers, pioneers, settlers and mountaineer families who battled the Appalachian elements would face a prolonged season without fresh greens and plants that were rich in vitamins.

With winters often far more brutal than those in recent years, the winter-diets of early mountaineers, though rich in protein, often lacked even the most basic sources of adequate vitamins through.  Sadly, the onset of winter often brought with it grave danger for people as their bodies were often defenseless against what are seen as minor sicknesses today.

As the snows of March began to melt and green grass took the place of muddy pastures, so too would begin the hunt.  The hunt for a very specific type of wild onion known as “ramps”.

Taking note from the region’s first inhabitants, settlers followed in the footsteps of Native Americans in consuming the early-spring onion in an effort to ward off sickness and strengthen the body after a long winter.

The Cherokee eat the plant as a spring tonic, for colds and for croup as well as the warm juices for earaches. The Iroquois also a decoction of the root to treat worms in children, as well as the plant as a spring tonic to “clean you out”.

Modern science seemingly confirms these practices, as the ramp’s vitamin and mineral content are believed to have bolstered the health of people who went without many green vegetables during the winter.

Containing a strong garlic-like odor and a pronounced onion flavor, ramps continue to serve as a popular delicacy in the Eastern United States and is adaptable to numerous cooking styles.

In central Appalachia, ramps are most commonly fried with potatoes in bacon fat or scrambled with eggs and served with bacon, pinto beans and cornbread.  Ramps can be pickled or used in soups and other foods in place of onions and garlic.

Unfortunately, Appalachia’s love affair with ramps is somewhat of a double-edged sword.

In Canada, ramps are considered rare delicacies since their growth is not as widespread there as in Appalachia and because of destructive human practices, ramps are listed as a threatened species in Quebec. In Maine, Rhode Island and Tennessee, ramps are considered a species of “special concern” as it is feared that they may be harvested at unsustainable numbers.

Still, ramp festivals remain a springtime tradition through Appalachia as annual ramp related events and festivals take place in Richwood, Huntington and Elkins, West Virginia, Crosby and Flag Pond, Tennessee; Whitetop, Virginia; and Haywood County, North Carolina.

Like articles like this? Then you would love Appalachian Magazine’s Mountain Voice: A Collection of Memories, Histories, and Tall Tales of Appalachia!  Click here to check out the book on Amazon!

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