A Fine Mess of Ramps: Tradition and Community Thrive at West Virginia's Ramp Dinners

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After two and a half hours of driving past the skeletal forests of early spring, I was relieved to pull into the parking lot of Eagles Lodge 4357 in Buckhannon, West Virginia. My friend Samara and I had set out from my hometown of Marietta, Ohio, and while the lodge wasn't outrageously far from Buckhannon's main streets, I'd only passed through on the highway before; unfamiliar turnoffs come up suddenly on windy roads, and experience has taught me not to trust the navigational advice of Google Maps in this neck of the woods. But a ramp dinner wouldn't feel right if it were smack-dab in the middle of town and too easy to get to. It's worth the adventure.

A volunteer stood in the gravel lot, which was packed with cars, and he waved us over to an empty spot. Samara had on heart-shaped sunglasses, and I'd driven a car plastered with skateboarding stickers. I feared we were oddballs crashing a party, day-trippers there for an authentic taste of Appalachia that neither of us grew up with.

But as we entered the lodge and each paid $15 to a smiling man for the all-you-can-eat meal, the smell hit me with an almost physical force: powerful fumes of raw ramps—like chives on steroids—mingled with the sweet aroma of ramps cooked with bacon. I knew we were in the right place. To belong here, all you need to do is love eating ramps.

Though ramps thrive in southeast Ohio, where I grew up and now live again, the Ohio River seems to mark a cultural difference when it comes to the now-fashionable foraged alliums. I wasn't aware of them until my early 20s, when I had an old-school outdoorsman boyfriend from West Virginia. He brought back ramps he'd found on a hike and fried them up with potatoes in his electric skillet, explaining that he'd been taught to first chop and blanch them to tone down the pungency a bit.

The ramps hooked me right away, and not just with their untamed flavor. I loved even more that they hide in plain sight, popping up their green leaves through the brown detritus in the woods and going totally unnoticed by those who don't know any better. Finding and savoring ramps requires a level of gratifying engagement, a direct communion with nature, and their arrival brings with it the promise of renewal. In the middle of January there's a point where I look around at all of the barren trees and gray skies and wonder if ramps ever existed at all, but they always come back.

In the Land of The King of Stink

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In and around West Virginia, a large measure of ramps is known colloquially as "a mess of ramps" or "a big mess of ramps". A pound of ramps is not a mess, and surely not a big mess. A bushel? Now we're talking. And ramp dinners employ dozens of bushels.

Though you'll find ramp dinners throughout Appalachia, West Virginia is the heart of them, geographically and culturally. The dinners date back to the Great Depression, when the no-cost foraged ramps elevated humble ingredients into a feast. Now there are at least 25 ramp dinners and festivals in the state each year. Most are fundraisers held by service clubs, churches, and other community organizations; the proceeds are vital to the each group's annual operating budget.

Until recently, many ramp dinners were only publicized through local print media and word of mouth. But these days, longtime ramp aficionado Anita Toth Simpson of Glenville, West Virginia maintains listings on her website, King of Stink, and it's a godsend to people like me, who are willing to drive a few hours out of town for the chance to eat a mess of ramps.

Ramps in the Wild

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Peak ramp season is March through April: We're in the thick of it now. The pungent greens grow in shady areas of deciduous forests in eastern North American mountains and can be found as far north as Canada. In rural Appalachia, on roads leading into larger communities, you'll often spot people selling freshly dug ramps from the backs of pickup trucks. It's a continuation of the forage-barter economy that was once a way of life in hardscrabble towns, and continues to be a helpful stream of income in regions hard hit with the loss of jobs. Long before these wild mountain leeks fetched $20 a pound at well-heeled urban farmers markets, ramps were a beloved food and an emblem of seasonal abundance here.

High in vitamin A and folic acid, ramps offer more vitamin C per ounce than oranges. The arrival of ramps in remote hollers—their emerald green leaves reaching up from the brown detritus of the forest floor—not only brought variety to mealtimes after a season of limited produce, but provided much-needed nutrients to alleviate vitamin deficiencies and digestive issues known around here as the "winter complaints."

But while it does have distinctive ingredients (such as spicebush and the dried green beans known as "leather britches"), Appalachian cuisine is not big on bold flavors, and so the forceful character of ramps has long divided households. Indeed, consuming a raw ramp will perfume burps and kisses for hours to come. It's also bracing and invigorating, though, like a shot of grappa or clump of grated horseradish.

Inside a Ramp Dinner

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At the Buckhannon Eagles Lodge, Samara and I stared down the buffet line, which offered all of the classic touchstones of a ramp dinner: raw and cooked ramps, potatoes, ham, soup beans, and cornbread. I asked the woman dishing out the cooked ramps for an extra-large helping, because I like to split my cornbread and let it soak up the cooking liquid mingled with bacon grease. We sat down with our heavy trays across from a man named Leonard, who told us he was 89. He then charmed us by inquiring if we were college students, and though college is many years behind us, I did notice that Samara and I were some of the younger people in attendance.

This was Samara's first ramp dinner; I invited her because she's game for anything. She'd never even had a ramp before, but she jumped in headfirst by eating a raw one. A ramp dinner newbie might notice fresh ramps in mason jars set out like floral arrangements and naively assume that they're decorations. But look around, and you'll see brave souls eating them straight-up, sometimes first dousing them with drops of plain white vinegar. The leaves are tender and herbaceous; the bulb end, though, sends your palate to oblivion. Starting off a ramp dinner with this crude ramp crudité is halfway between a dare and a proving ground—the full spring tonic effect.

"So?" I asked her.

"I like it!" Samara said.

Leonard made his way through his plate purposefully, leaving nary a crumb. I asked him if he comes to this dinner every year. "I go to every ramp dinner I can," he said.

"Which one is your favorite?" I asked.

"The one where I happen to be," he answered.

Some people don't even eat ramps at ramp dinners, though. There's always a ramp-free option on the menu—potatoes cooked without ramps, hard-boiled eggs pickled without ramps. Given the pervasive aroma in the halls at these events, anyone tagging along who deplores ramps is either a very good sport or skilled at cloaking their discomfort.

Many Hands, Much Work

The Buckhannon Eagles dinner is one of the earliest ones of the season. Faith Gospel Church in Parkersburg, West Virginia will hold their dinner on April 30, right when the frequency of dinners hits a fever pitch. I spoke to Dave Gant, one of the organizers of Faith's dinner, and he predicted that they'll serve 200 to 250 diners at their event. Gant said they get a family who comes down from Alliance, Ohio, two hours away. "And we get phone calls as far away as New York. People follow King of Stink and find out that way."

The volunteers at Faith will start cooking at dawn on the day of their dinner. "We [typically] fry 45 pounds of bacon and save the grease to fry potatoes and ramps in," Gant said. The last volunteers won't leave the church until about 7 p.m. It's a long day.

Since ramps tend to grow on slopes, the harvest is labor-intensive, and often involves trudging up or down a steep, muddy hill with a bulky sack. Only then can the kitchen work begin. "Cleaning the ramps is the hardest part," said Gant. Clods of dark brown soil cling to tangled tendrils of roots, and slimy outer layers of the bulb that died back during the winter have to be stripped off. It's a dirty yet delicate task that can't be rushed. In past years, ten to twenty volunteers at Faith's dinner have spent two to three nights just cleaning the ramps.

With the increased demand for ramps nationwide, more people are digging ramps for profit, and not all of those people are straight shooters. Faith Gospel Church has paid foragers for ramps in past years, but last year they got shorted—Gant estimates that their 300-pound order was at least 100 pounds off. To make up the difference, church members went out and dug up their own on short order: 15 people harvested 285 pounds in just one night. "The Lord really moved and helped us," Gant told me.

This year, they're digging their ramps themselves to remove some of the guesswork. "It is becoming more challenging to find them," said Gant. "Most of the time we have to travel about three hours."

Enough Ramps to Go Around

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The recent rise of ramps as a trendy boutique food has been beneficial for West Virginia in many ways, particularly because when the state makes national headlines, it's usually for something unflattering (think of Jamie Oliver's initiative to overhaul the school lunches in Huntington, or the 2014 chemical spill that contaminated the Elk River). West Virginia is rich with folk art, natural beauty, and warm hospitality, and if ramps nudge outsiders to reconsider their perception of the state as rife with hillbillies who survive on Mountain Dew and Slim Jims, it's all the better.

Thus is the Catch-22 a ramp fanatic faces: the more people know about ramps, the fewer ramps there are to go around. Many professional foragers are mindful of the ecology they depend on for an income, but when wild foods fetch high prices, it can lead to increased incidents of poaching, causing foragers (whether they're organizing a ramp dinner or digging ramps for sale) to go deeper and deeper into the woods. "West Virginia is particularly hard hit with overharvesting," says Tanner Filyaw, the Non-Timber Forest Products Specialist at Rural Action, a nonprofit based in The Plains, Ohio. Ramps grow very slowly, and careless harvesting can decimate a patch for decades.

Ramps Build Fellowship

Ramp festivals and dinners can't happen without ramps, of course, but the sustainability of another resource is just as vital: volunteers. I've been to a number of ramp dinners where the volunteers and attendees are closer to my parents' generation than mine. For some of those folks, tromping down uneven slopes in the early spring with a pickaxe gets harder every year, but the rewards go beyond ramps.

"It's a good outreach," said Gant. "And it's a good fundraiser, but it's not an easy fundraiser. The week before, we're working every night." As anyone who's worked hard in close quarters with others knows, that's how strong bonds are formed. Ramps bring people together. Those putting on the dinner might be exhausted afterwards, but their fellowship has deepened, and they have the satisfaction of knowing they've created an event where all are welcome, whether it's their hundredth ramp dinner or their first.

After we cleared our plates and said our goodbyes to the folks at the Eagles Lodge, Samara and I made our way through the parking lot back to my car. I thought about chewing some spearmint gum for the road, but decided against it. Dragon breath was my souvenir. Besides, no gum on earth is a match for a ramp.