When I came to Elkins in early 1972, I often heard several people talking about digging and eating ramps. At first, I did not have a clue what they were talking about. I always thought a ramp was an inclined plane or one of the six simple machines we studied in junior high school science classes.
Allium Tricoccum, known as ramps or wild leeks, is an early spring onion. Allium is the Latin word for garlic. They are found in groups with large, smooth, light green leaves. The lower part of the stems often has a purplish tint. They are found in eastern North America as far south as South Carolina and as far north as the Canadian Province of Quebec. Ramps have a pungent flavor, a combination of onion and strong garlic. Several people have told me that they would eat these plants in self-defense.
For many generations, people in the Eastern United States have honored these savory plants. The West Virginia community of Richwood holds an annual "Feast of the Ramson" in April, sponsored by the National Ramp Association.
The Randolph County Conventin and Visitor's Bureau has traditionally hosted the International Ramp Festival during the last weekend in April. This festival features a large cook-off, along with ramp eating contests. This festival is well attended, with people coming even from as far away as Michigan. Ramp festivals are also held in Kentucky, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Virginia. The Elkins Depot Welcome Center and the Randolph County Development Authority hosted this year's Ramps and Rails festival.
Throughout Appalachia, ramps are commonly fried with potatoes, but they also go well with scrambled eggs, pinto beans and cornbread. Ramps are often mixed with soups, ketchup and guacamole, in place of onions or garlic.
In Quebec, Allium Tricoccum is a protected plant under Quebec law. A person may have in his possession a maximum of 50 bulbs for personal consumption. This law has not stopped poachers who often find a ready market across the border in Ontario.
The consumption of ramps dates as far back as the Egyptians during the time of the Pharaohs. In the Bible, Numbers 11:5 states, "We remember the fish we ate in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic." Their plants had to be similar to the cultivated leeks or ramps available in many seed catalogs.
Since I came to Elkins, I have eaten ramps in fried potatoes, scrambled eggs and in the form of ramp burgers. I think I like the burgers the best. I just do not get excited about them like some people do in this area.
The ones who enjoy eating ramps may want to try their luck at cultivating these plants. Allium Tricoccum seeds are available in many seed catalogs. Nearly all wild leeks, native or otherwise, are generally alike. Twelve species of Allium are listed in Grays Manual of Botany. Four of them are wild garlic, five are wild onion, two are leeks and one is a naturalized plant from Europe.