When I first wrote about ramps in Food & Wine magazine in 1985, there were few to be found outside the forest. After all, urban areas are not home to most wild edibles—and not until recently have swanky restaurants and specialty food shops become showcases for foraged fare. Now, these native American leeks arrive in sophisticated city shops with the first garlicky breath of spring and appear on menus countrywide. Another edible has been restored to American tables by a national passion for novel foods and dining out.
But there have always been people who know ramps from the ground up, because the vegetable grows and is harvested and cooked on their home turf—and the turf is wide. Wild leeks flourish in rich forest soil from Canada through New England to Georgia and as far west as Minnesota; and in the southern Appalachians, their emergence in spring sets off a series of celebrations.
The name “ramp” originated in the Appalachians. The term probably derives from the name of a related species, ramson (Allium ursinum), literally bear’s garlic (also called wild garlic), which may in some places also refer to A. tricoccum. The “Feast of the Ramson” (just one of many ramp festivities) is held annually in Richwood, West Virginia, the state that has come to represent ramps. A brochure from the Richwood Chamber of Commerce offers this fanciful etymology: “The first sign of the Zodiac calendar is Aries, which ushers in the spring during March and April. Aries is the Arabic word for Ram, the male of the sheep family, stout, rambunctious, and a bit odoriferous! The plant we call the ‘Rams’ Son’ is the first green shoot to show itself in the deep Appalachian woodlands.”
Superficially, the most obvious appeal of ramp is visual: lily-like (it is a member of the lily family), its smooth leaves sharply defined, its body slim and tapering, the whole freshly painted in tricolor, it could well symbolize spring itself. At close range (in fact, even across a crowded room) its most startling characteristic reveals itself: the super-strong smell, quite unlike that of any other Allium. Although the plant looks as ladylike as lily of the valley, its aromatic punch is far more pronounced and persistent than that of its relative the cultivated leek.