Full-flavored and funky

Feasting on the funky stink of spring

Illustration by Robert Meganck

They emerge early in the spring, spreading in big patches like verdant green pools against the dull carpet of winter’s leaf litter. Unprepossessing in appearance, they sprout two or three long, flat, tapered leaves attached to a purplish stem growing from a scallion-like bulb. But looks aren’t what you’re looking for when you seek these plants. It’s the olfactory punch they pack that make ramps a kind of Appalachian truffle: memorably stinky and almost cultishly coveted.

Sometimes also called wild leeks, ramps are part of the allium, or onion, branch of the lily family, and in Virginia are found growing in the damp, shaded, organically rich soil of the forest understory in the state’s Appalachian corridor. Their season is brief—a few short weeks before the tree canopy overhead begins to leaf out. But all parts of the plant are edible, and, as the first fresh burst of spring flavor to relieve the winter monotony of preserved foods and root vegetables, they have long been wild-gathered and feasted upon in this region.

What do ramps taste like? They are variously described as spicy and funky; like green garlic and green onions, or a cross between scallions and garlic, but sweet like shallots. One Southern chef helpfully described them to Epicurious as “a tone flavor.” The word used most often, however, is “pungent.”

Ramps are plants that announce themselves pronouncedly.

Ramps have deep roots in Appalachian food culture, traditionally cooked with bacon fat and sometimes, eggs, and served alongside beans, bacon, potatoes and cornbread. Along with other early-season greens like nettles and dandelions, they have long been referred to as a “spring tonic,” a metaphorical and medicinal cure for winter and its afflictions. As a member of the Cosby, Tennessee, Ruritan Club explains gleefully on the documentary King of Stink: Appalachian Ramp Festivals, “When you eat ramps, you smell so bad that nobody can get close enough to you to give you a cold or the flu!”

As a wild-foraged, regional, and evanescently seasonal plant with an edgy “I dare you to like me” funkiness, however, ramps were perhaps inevitably destined to become a darling of the foodie set. Every spring, they burst onto the menus of trendy “locavore” eateries, crop up for as much as $20 per pound or more in Northeast corridor farmers’ markets, and proliferate across a multi-ethnic panorama of recipes: ramps risotto, ramps pesto, ramps dumplings, ramps kimchee, ramps pizza, ramps salsa, ramps aioli, ramps cocktails—and of course, eventually, someone had to go there and make ramps ice cream.

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