ELKINS - It's spring in the hills of West Virginia, and time for the famous spring tonic - the season of ramps. When talking to folks about these wildly pungent vegetables, one thing is clear: everyone has a story about ramps, whether or not they have ever eaten ramps. It seems people either love them or hate them.
The ramp - also called a spring onion, wild leek, wood leek or wild garlic - looks like a green onion and grows wild in the hills from South Carolina to Canada. Many ramp celebrations - like the Ramps & Rail Festival taking place in Elkins today - attract those who love the stinky vegetables. Local churches, groups and organizations host dinners where ramp lovers flock to get their fill of the unique bulbed plants.
Future Business Leaders Association students from the Randolph Technical Center in Elkins are trying to help raise money to compete at the National FBLA Conference in Nashville June 28-July 3. They decided to make and sell ramp butter, ramp salt and ramp dip during the Ramps & Rail Festival today to help defray the cost of their trip. They are selling their wares in the Elkins Railyard and hope folks stop by for a taste of their tasty ramp concoctions.
The Inter-Mountain photo by Beth Christain Broschart
Tom Worles and Scott Smith display some of the many pounds of ramps they have sold by the side of the road in the Elkins area this week.
Cindy Souch Richardson, a Morgantown resident, said her husband Mark used to go to their neighbors and play cards, drink beverages and eat pickled ramps.
"When he came home, he would stink up the house for days," Richardson said. "I could not get any sleep for the smell. It was awful!"
Thelma Wyatt, who grew up in Jimtown, said her grandson Christopher had to write a paper for school in Richmond, Va.
"He called his great grandmother, Gertrude Bennett, and asked that she send him some ramps," Wyatt said. "She sent them and he wrote his paper on ramps with help from her. He got an 'A' on his paper."
Elkins resident Judy Schoonover Ritchie said she once wrapped up some ramps and shipped them overnight to her cousin, Linda Harrison.
"Linda lives in California," Ritchie said. "The UPS driver told her she had something rotten in her package."
Trish Johnson, former Jimtown resident, said the first time she visited West Virginia with her then-boyfriend, he promised to take her to a ramp dinner.
"I had never heard of a ramp before, so I was picturing some sort of boardwalk-type place," Johnson said. "I was so confused where a boardwalk would be in the Elkins area."
Cheryl Wilmoth said she did not grow up in Elkins, but vacationed at Canaan Valley with her family.
"We always came to the mountains in the spring to get ramps," Wilmoth said. "I've eaten them all my life, which was a pretty good thing when Paul and I got married, because he loves them, too! Not long after we were married, Paul decided that we should go to the ramp festival in Helvetia. I'd never been there, and he had some friends coming in that were all gathering there, so off we went.
"The afternoon started in a very crowded basement of the community building, where everyone (including us) was eating soup beans, cornbread, fried potatoes and of course, ramps fixed in a variety of ways. Along with that feast was plenty of homemade wine. The evening progressed to a square dance in the upstairs of the community building. Keep in mind, it was a rather warm day, there was no air conditioning and everyone was sweating like crazy. Given all the ramps and wine that had been consumed, and the fact that some folks had been eating ramps for at least a week, oh my heavens, I had to run outside for some fresh air! It was a fun evening, with many fun memories!"
Elkins resident Richard Leitner said he nearly got shot while digging ramps.
"I crossed a small stream onto another person's land and the old man was grabbing his gun out of his holster as I made it across," Leitner said. "He told me my friend's land is on the other side of the stream. I only wanted a plastic bag of ramps for myself. It scared me to high heaven."
Nancy Loudin, of Belington, said her first experience with ramps was at her grandfather's home.
"He smelled when we went to his house in the spring," Loudin said. "I never tried ramps myself until a few years ago and I did not like them at all. We have 'volunteers' growing in the back of our property that I share with those who love them as long as they don't take them all. The bright green leaves are very pretty in the spring."
All this week, when coming into Elkins, vendors could be seen along the side of the road with signs indicating they had ramps for sale. On Wednesday morning, Scott Smith and Tom Worles set up their stand to sell ramps on the side of the road.
"We just pretty much look for ramps growing wild to dig and sell," Smith said. "This is the first year I have dug ramps to sell. We hope to have lots of people stop by to get ramps. You can sell 40 to 50 pounds of ramps by the side of the road each day."
Smith said he can dig 80 pounds of ramps in about six hours.
"They grow wild in the woods," Worles said. "You go up in the mountains and it looks like grass growing where they are so thick."
"You can see them growing far away because of their distinct shape and color," Smith said. "I love to eat ramps. Last night I had ramp burgers and fried potatoes with ramps"
Worles said anything you can make with onions, you can make with ramps.
At Bob's Hotdogs in Norton, ramp hot dogs are on the menu.An employee said the restaurant has sold ramp milkshakes for the past two years.
"It took us a while to perfect the recipe, but now we sell lots of ramp milkshakes," he said. "They taste like ramps and are very good. No one who has tried one has not thoroughly enjoyed it."
So what are some of the favorite ways to prepare and eat ramps? Brandi Collins Carbaugh said she doesn't like ramps unless they are in butter or a ramp seasoning.
"That's the only way I eat them," Elkins resident Carbaugh said.
Miranda Louk Smith, of Alpena, said she likes ramps, potatoes and eggs cooked together.
Brandy Pingley, formerly from the Tygart Valley area, said she likes poor man's stew.
"I fix potatoes, deer roast, onions and ramps cooked in a crock pot all day," Pingley said. "I serve it with salt and melted butter. Yummo!"
Amy Taylor, former Mill Creek resident, said she boils ramps and then fries them in bacon grease and adds crumbled bacon.
Jason Ulderich posted on Facebook that he puts his ramps in a dehydrator, grinds them up and then uses them to season his foods all year around.
Samantha Clarkson likes to make homemade ramp butter, while Jessie Roberts said her favorite way to eat ramps is in wontons. Len Pennington likes pickled ramps, while Vickie Roidt likes ramp jam with cream cheese and crackers. Roidt said she also likes the ramp sauce at the Jabberwock.
Carole Hyre and daughter Christina Hyre Nestor once entered the ramp cook-off in the Elkins City Park during the Ramp Festival.
"We made Randolph County Ramp Chili," Hyre said. "We had a great time and after the tasting, we went home with an empty pot."
Even the "big time cooks" on the Cooking Channel and the Food Network are including these stinky, yet tasty spring vegetables in their recipes. Online recipes for such dishes as Bobby Flay's roasted potatoes with wild ramps, Emeril Lagasse's sauteed ramps with apple smoked bacon, Mario Batali's one hour calamari in umido with ramp bruschetta, Alex Guarnaschelli's seared shrimp salad with sauteed ramps and Mike Symon's recipe for pickled ramps are just a few among the many recipes featuring ramps.
No matter how you enjoy (or hate) ramps, now is the time to get your fill of these increasingly popular April delicacies.