Ramps: Not just for Rednecks anymore

With buckets, picks and spades in hand, we ease our way down a rocky mountainside in Maryland’s Potomac State Forest, grasping for saplings to steady our steep descent. We’re in search of ramps, the elusive wild onion that makes its appearance for a few short weeks in Appalachia each spring between snowmelt and leaf-out. Just where they’ll crop up is a closely guarded secret, known only to those who are in communion with the woods. It’s a secret I promised to keep as condition of joining this ramp-harvesting party. At first the woods seem still asleep, with trees yet to bud out and last season’s dry leaves littering the forest floor. But then, a flush of green, with the lush foliage of this potent delicacy emerges in clumps down the fall line of a ravine. We scrabble down between the rocks, taking care not to disturb the woodland beauties of trillium and dog-toothed violet blooming among the bulbs. Digging is surprisingly difficult, but it’s important to dig deep and carefully so as not to slice through the bulbs and release the eye-watering aroma. And as tempting as it is to dig up an entire clump, we can only take a few to ensure next year’s harvest. Buckets full, we struggle to climb back up the mountainside that seems steeper than we remember. Then it’s time to share with friends and family. Because if you’re going to eat ramps, you want everyone around you to do the same or it will be a solitary experience. They share a level of pungency that rivals their domestic relations of garlic and onions. It’s a smell that can seep from your pores, lingering for a several days, which is why when I was in elementary school, taking a few bites of the bulbs was a sure fire way to get sent home for the day. Still, it’s a celebrated spring tonic and a flavorful favorite of gourmet restaurants, where seasonally-obcessed chefs feature its wild flavor in everything from soup to risotto during its brief season. For those reluctant to climb down ravines, or shop New York City’s Greenmarket to purchase the delicacy, wild food websites offer to ship the vegetable once it’s in season. To experience the taste, without the five-star fussiness, head for the hills of western Maryland and West Virginia in late April and early May, where fire halls and state parks will host a number of festivals, dinners and cook-offs to celebrate this spring tonic. Often they’re served fried with bacon, onions and potatoes, but the cook-offs invite inventive chefs to dream up other concoctions.

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