It is that time of the year and the smell is in the air—the smell of ramps that is.
The rich moist soil of the Appalachian forest floors were open air food markets long before grocery stores fed us. Its greens were a vital food source for the early settlers, and they included dandelions, poke, Shawnee lettuce, woolen britches, creasies, and lamb’s tongue, but the first of the greens to arrive in the spring were ramps. The unique thing abouts ramps is that they stink. They stink a lot! Dave Tabler writing in AppalachianHistory.net about the ramp smell explained—take a garlic and multiply that intensity by about ten. The mere scent of those who have recently eaten a mess of ramps has been known to clear a room.
Despite their smell, mountain folks celebrated their return after a winter devoid of fresh vegetables. And it is a tradition that continues to this day. This year, 2022, Asheville’s Ramp Festival takes place on the first of May first at the American Legion located at 171 Legion Drive in Waynesville, just a short drive from Applewood Manor. Activities include live clogging, raffles, karaoke contests and, of course, a ramp dinner.
Granted ramps are an acquired taste but the “little stinkers” are still a sought after commodity around Asheville. So much so that their harvesting is controlled by the National Park Service. For private use, individuals can harvest five pounds from our Appalachian National Parks, permit free, picked from approved patches. Commercial use requires a permit and harvesters are charged a fee based on poundage. Only every other plant in a patch may be harvested to maintain a healthy sustainable crop of this native plant. The botanical name of this smelly eatable is Allium tricoccum. But in the mountains, they are just called ramps. As for how they got that name, it comes from the British Isles and a wild garlic plant with the folk name of “ramson” (son of Ram) since the plant season was March 20 to April 20—the sign of Aries in the zodiac calendar. Over time the name got shortened to “ramp.” The Native American Indians gave it a more appropriate name, “pikwute sikakushia” which translates to skunk plant. And, as an aside, if you ever wondered where the city of Chicago got its name, it is a poor translation of the Indian word for skunk place, “shikako,” given to the southern shore of Lake Michigan where ramps grew abundantly. [Author’s note: I always knew something smelled in Chicago, especially around election time!]
The ramp was more than just a welcome spring delight for money poor early settlers. It was the first fresh vegetable after a long winter providing a powerful, much needed, shot of vitamins A and C, plus selenium, and chromium. We know now that those vitamins and nutrients are good for teeth, bones, eyesight, the immune system, and the cardiovascular system. But, acquired taste or not, early mountain folks learned to love the ramp and the craving for the yearly ramp feast remains today among their descendants. Surprisingly, this smelly poor man’s delight has finally made its way into gourmet food circles and upscale dining establishments. Writing on Vox.com Nisha Chittal reported: Ramp mania in affluent cities has also become something of a class marker. Talking about “ramps season” these days is a way to show taste and sophistication, to signal to people that you care about locally sourced produce and knowing where your food comes from. Ramp-obsessed urbanites have turned what was once a relatively obscure allium most popular in the Appalachian region into something that bougie New Yorkers hunt down at restaurants and farmers markets every April. You will find ramps on the menu of Asheville’s creative restaurants during the plants short season, from late March to mid-May—places like the Jargon restaurant; Guadalupe Cafe in Sylva; Frogs Leap Public House in Waynesville; Chestnut in downtown Asheville; The Blackbird Restaurant; Rhubarb; and among others the Highland Lake Inn in Flat Rock. However, if it is date night, be sure you bring along plenty of breath mints!