With the coming of spring the pungent ramp is about to strut center-stage once more.
For either the novitiate or the aficionado, there are ample opportunities over the next month to sample this Southern Appalachian delicacy — no fewer than three spring festivals in the immediate area feature ramps, a plant that at one time ranked among the lowliest members of the leek family.
This attention accorded the ramp is relatively newfound, though one must note for the purposes of accuracy that Waynesville’s venerable ramp festival has been around for many a year — featuring a ramp eating contest where grown men face off across a fodling table to see who can stuff the most of the eye-watering bulbs in their mouth.
SEE ALSO: Ramp recipes
But once upon a time, and not so long ago, eating lots of ramps was considered offense — and offensive — enough for children to be sent home in disgrace from school. The reaction was swift and uncompromising, akin to what could be expected if said children had been sprayed by skunks and then attempted to pass unnoticed — not sniffed out, as it were — in class. Eating too many ramps, you see, can cause one to emanate odors that, in these more sensitive olfactory times of yester-yore, was considered simply too much for delicate classmates and teachers to endure.
You ask, pre-ramp festival visitation, what should be considered eating “too many” ramps? That would constitute a pile, or perhaps a bushel and a peck: Never, ever fear sampling a mere few ramps.
Besides, even if you do eat a pile (there are ramp-eating contests, after all) and return home smelling of this native delight, these days that’s considered oh-so-cutting edge. Eating the odiferous ramp is practically the pinnacle of culinary fashion — restaurants in New York City, no less, now prominently feature ramps on menus.
The popularity of ramps has grown so much, in fact, that the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 2002 banned collection. Picking plants and taking them from a national park is generally considered poaching. But an exemption had been made for ramps in the Smokies “because of the traditional practices by Native Americans and European settlers,” Smokies spokeswoman Nancy Gray said.
The tribe protested and lobbied the park to reconsider and allow native people to continue ramp harvests, but to no avail. Gray said there was no legal authority to bend poaching rules for ramps collected by Cherokee people.
There are still public lands where one can legally dig ramps.
For personal use, people can harvest up to five pounds of ramps free on the Nantahala and Pisgah national forests. Mike Wilkins, district ranger for the Nantahala National Forest, said the maximum commercial use is limited to 500 pounds, with no more than 50 percent of the bulbs harvest in a 1-foot by 1-foot area. Fees are charged for commercial harvests.
“Personnel use is (harvest) anywhere,” Wilkins said. “We rotate the areas for commercial harvest.”
• Mountain trout and wild ramps are featured at the annual Rainbow and Ramps festival on Saturday, March 26, at 9 a.m. at the Cherokee Indian Fair Grounds. Hosted by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. Entertainment, music, Civil War reinactors and food featuring ramps. A $10 lunch will be served starting at noon, consisting of rainbow trout or fried chicken, ramps, pinto beans, fried potatoes, cornbread, dessert and a beverage.
• Waynesville Ramp Festival, May 1, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. American Legion Field, Waynesville.
• Robbinsville Ramp Festival, May 1, noon until the food is gone, downtown Robbinsville.