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Purple rhododendron is the most admired flowering plant in the Southern Appalachians. Ginseng is the most celebrated medicinal plant. And ramps are the most sought-after culinary plant — a fact that has led to its overharvesting in the wild.

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.”

 

Ramp festivals

• 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.

Ramp recipes

Ramp Biscuits

4 cups Flour

1 tablespoon Baking Soda

1 teaspoon Salt

2 Heaping T Baking Powder

½ cup Shortening or oil

2 cups Buttermilk

1 cup uncooked Minced Ramps

Sift flour, salt, baking powder and soda together. Cut in shortening until mixture looks like grapenuts, add ramps and enough buttermilk to make a soft dough ball, make sure ramps are well mixed in dough. Turn out on floured surface.

Knead dough from north to south, east to west adding flour if too sticky, the more you knead the lighter the bread, flatten the dough and cut out your biscuits or just leave as flat bread or "pone."

Preheat oven to 425 degrees and place biscuits on a lightly greased pan, lightly caramelize a small about of ramps in a bit of butter, strain out ramps and brush the top of your bread with the butter, place in oven for 15 to 20 minutes until golden brown. Pry a biscuit open to see if it is done, if not return to oven for a few more minutes baking time.

Baking time depends on your oven and the thickness of the biscuits... when the bread is done the ramps will be too. Serve immediately with real butter for best experience.

Note*** If you are using baking mix use 4 cup mix, ½ cup shortening, 2 cup buttermilk, 1 cup minced ramps and follow package directions.

You may also use self-rising flour, shortening, buttermilk and ramps. Whole milk can be substituted for buttermilk follow directions.

For heavier bread leave out the shortening and use old fashioned buttermilk, this is a better recipe for diabetics.

 

Killed Ramps and Branch Lettuce

1 quart of ramps with tops

1 quart of branch lettuce

1 package of bacon

Fry bacon crisp and set aside to drain. Chop ramps and branch lettuce coarsely and place in a heat resistant bowl.

If you don't have enough bacon dripping to make ¾ cup, melt enough lard into dripping to make ¾ cup.

Pour hot dripping over chopped ramps and branch lettuce. Add salt and pepper to taste and top with crumbled bacon.

Must be served hot.

Note*** If you can find it you may add some "crows foot greens" to the ramps and branch lettuce. They will add a bit of zip to the flavor.

You may substitute regular green onions and leaf lettuce or spinach, but isn't nearly as good.

 

Fried Potatoes and Ramps

6-8 Medium White Potatoes

2 Cup New Ramps or 3 cups chopped with tops

1 package of bacon

Salt and pepper to taste

Fry bacon crisp, set bacon aside to drain. While bacon is cooking peel and slice potatoes into 1/8 inch thick slices. Place in cold water to prevent drying out.

After bacon is removed turn down heat a bit, drain your potatoes and pat dry with paper towel. Place potatoes in skillet with hot bacon grease, add salt and pepper to taste, brown gently then add ramps and cover with lid. Let simmer for 8-10 minutes or until ramps are clear.

Place ramp and potato mixture in bowl and sprinkle the crumbled bacon on top. Serve hot!

 

Ramp Cornbread

1½ cup white cornmeal

½ cup flour

1 t salt

3 t baking powder

2 T sugar

2 eggs

1 cup milk whole or butter

¼ cup oil

1 cup finely minced ramps

Sift dry ingredients together, add ramps, combine eggs, milk and oil. Fold into dry ingredients beat until smooth. Preheat oven and well oiled 8 inch iron skillet to 400 degrees. Pour mixture into hot skillet and bake for about twenty minutes until top is golden brown and a piece of spaghetti inserted into the center come out clean.

Serve hot with plenty of butter and a big glass of buttermilk or whole milk as desired.

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