Episode Guide: Wild Ramps in West Virginia Img

Also known as spring onions, ramsons, wild leeks, wood leeks, and wild garlic, North American ramps (Allium tricoccum) are a member of the allium family and have been celebrated in Appalachia for centuries, where there is a strong tradition of foraging a variety of greens, mushrooms, and wild vegetables.

In the forests of West Virginia, the time-honored tradition of harvesting this wild vegetable has been enjoyed for hundreds of years. The locals celebrate the first greens of the season, and find innovative ways to enjoy ramps’ unique flavor. 

They were traditionally consumed as the season’s first “greens” and are popular in a number of regional cuisines. The flavor is described as a combination of onions and strong garlic, which combines well with many other foods.

We visit Richwood, W.V., a small town of just 1,600 residents, which is known as the Ramp Capital of the World

Every year volunteers celebrate this pungent wild food by cooking up a meal of ramps for over 1,000 people — known as Feast of the Ramson — and it’s the longest running ramp feast in the country, spanning over 85 years. 

Feast of the Ramson Ramps with Bacon

  • 2 lbs ramps, cleaned and trimmed
  • 1/2 lb sliced bacon
  • Salt, to taste
  • Black pepper, to taste
  1. Separate ramp bulbs from leaves; reserve both.
  2. Fry bacon until crispy; set aside and drain excess grease, leaving 2 tablespoons in the skillet.
  3. Add ramp bulbs and 1/2 cup water to the skillet; cook until soft, about 15 minutes.
  4. Coarsely chop leaves; add to skillet and cook until wilted.
  5. Crumble bacon; add to skillet and cook until ramps are soft and liquid is absorbed.
  6. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Serve Richwood-style with side dishes including ham, beans, potatoes — and homemade cakes for dessert!

We speak with two local experts on ramps and Appalachian traditions: Jim Chamberlain, Virginia scientist and ramp historian, and Glen Facemire, festival volunteer and author of the book, Having Your Ramps and Eating Them Too. Glen and Jim tell us about the nutritional and historical significance of ramps, noting their revitalizing qualities, use by Indigenous peoples, and their importance to early Scotch and Irish settlers. Glen and Jim also highlight the need for sustainable harvesting practices and the possibility of cultivating ramps at home.

Foraging and Cooking with Ramps

We meet with Jason Nerenberg, of Hawk Knob Appalachian Hard Cider and a Marshall University-trained culinary artist and instructor. Jason returned to rural West Virginia to connect with his family heritage and local traditions, including hunting, fishing, and, of course, foraging for ramps. He shares with us his passion for ramps and the mountain traditions of self-reliance through his culinary work and personal pursuits of hunting, farming, and fishing. 

Jason shows us where and how to forage for ramps, taking us to one of his family’s favorite forest spots in the mountains. Jason uses a Japanese hori hori knife and shows us how to dig up the ramps for taking home to cook. Remarkably, good stewardship and careful harvesting allows each ramp to be harvested and re-planted to continue the delicious growth of the wild vegetables for years. 

Jason shows us how he loves to cook his wild-harvested ramps on the mountainside over a fire, with venison, local honey, cider, and foraged morel mushrooms — which are harvested in the same season as ramps, and often cooked together. We enjoy a meal stream-side with Jason’s family, and hear more about the mountain culture tradition of foraging, hunting, fishing to provide for one’s family without reliance on grocery supply chains.  

Creekside Elderberry Gastrique 

  • 1/4 cup (80g) honey
  • 1/2 cup (125ml) elderberry cider
  • Sea salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  1. Heat the honey in a small saucepan over medium-low heat for 5 minutes, until it becomes a noticeably deeper shade of brown.
  2. Add the elderberry cider and continue to cook, swirling the pan a few times, for about 15 minutes, until the sauce has thickened to the consistency of thin maple syrup.
  3. Remove from heat and add a good pinch of both salt and pepper.
  4. Serve warm over roasted or simmered meats, or vegetables, or let cool to room temperature if serving with cheese.

Serve over cooked ramps and grilled venison loins to complete your creekside West Virginia meal. From the early settlers of Appalachia to now, these are the traditional springtime foods local families enjoy together. 

Harvesting Traditions: Ramp Salt 

While fresh ramps are seasonal in the area, West Virginians have found a way to preserve that flavor for enjoyment year-round: ramp salt. It’s not just the ramps that are a local ingredient — the salt is too.

During the 1700 and 1800s, West Virginia had a thriving salt industry, and at one time, the Kanawha Valley was the largest salt producing region in the country. The area produced award-winning salt thanks to the 400-million-year-old Iapetus Ocean under the Appalachian mountains, and the salt furnaces found all around the Kanawha Valley.

J.Q. Dickinson Salt-Works, run by siblings Nancy Bruns and Lewis Payne, harvests all-natural salt from this ancient sea bed beneath Charleston, W.V. continuing a family tradition that began in 1817. Every spring, they create a unique West Virginia Ramp Salt by drying and pulverizing foraged ramp leaves. They treat their salt as an agricultural product, use solar drying, and aim for a zero carbon footprint, with their products reaching renowned places around the world. Most salt consumed worldwide is mined, but naturally harvested, mineral-rich salt is dehydrated, as in the unique process used at J.Q. Dickinson Salt Works. 

Stinkfest & Ramp Recipes at The Wild Ramp

Like Feast of the Ramson, there are dozens of festivals around Appalachia each spring celebrating this treasured wild vegetable during its short harvesting season of about three weeks. We visit Stink Fest, an annual springtime fundraiser hosted by The Wild Ramp in Huntington, W.V., celebrating the local tradition of foraging ramps. The event features ramp-infused dishes, live music, artisanal goods, and activities for all ages, including the crowning of the Ramp King and Queen. Stink Fest supports The Wild Ramp, an indoor, year-round, nonprofit farmers market on a mission to promote local food access and sustain the community’s agricultural economy.

Stinkfest and The Wild Ramp market director Shelly Keeney organizes the event’s Ramp Recipe Contest each year, and we sample some of the ramp-infused culinary inventions, including ramp hummus, “rampi” (a twist on shrimp scampi), ramp crab rangoon, goat cheese ramp biscuits, ramp quiche, and even a ramp martini. 

Shelley shares with us her favorite personal recipe for a very versatile ramp butter. 

Ramp Lemon Butter

  • 1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
  • Zest of 1 lemon
  • 1 tablespoon dehydrated ramp powder
  • 1/4 cup fresh ramp leaves, both white and green parts, finely chopped
  1. Zest the lemon into the softened butter.
  2. In an electric mixer, cream the butter until smooth.
  3. Add the dehydrated ramp powder and finely chopped fresh ramp leaves to the butter.
  4. Mix in the electric mixer until the ingredients are well whipped and blended.

Serve the ramp lemon butter on bread, vegetables, steaks, or any dish you want to enhance with a burst of ramp flavor.

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