By Kendal Groner
For many of those in Appalachian communities, the blooming flowers and warming temperatures that are indicative of springtime also represent the arrival of the highly-celebrated ramp season. A member of the lily family, these wild edibles, which are stronger than a leek and more pungent than a scallion, are native to the forests of eastern North America and hold cultural significance for many communities.
Flag Pond once again demonstrated its status as a close-knit community and love for its Appalachian heritage with the 33rd Annual Ramp Festival sponsored by the Flag Pond Ruritan Club and held at the Old Flag Pond school on Saturday, May 12.
“I’m tickled to death with the turnout this year and plus we had pretty weather this year,” said Richard Waldrop, Flag Pond Ruritan Club president, who estimated that the festival had well over 700 attendees.
Several vendors attended the festival, selling handmade jewelry and other items, flower arrangements, essential oils and more. Live music was played throughout the day with performances from the Unicoi County High School Bluegrass Band, Spivey Mountain Boys and the Flag Ponders.
On the menu for the day was soup beans, bacon, coleslaw, cornbread, fried taters and, of course, plenty of ramps. There were also homemade desserts and the option of hamburgers or hot dogs for those who found the strong ramp flavor to be overpowering.
“We went last Saturday and dug ramps and then we went last Tuesday and dug,” Waldrop said. “We hop on the back of a truck and go to the mountains to dig.”
Waldrop estimated that they harvested well over 40 pounds of ramps for the festival and said the best way to eat them is with fried taters.
Putting on the annual event takes teamwork, according to Waldrop.
“We couldn’t put it on if it wasn’t for the volunteers,” he said.
Waldrop also said several volunteers come together to make the festival a reality and contribute in various ways such as collecting ramps, cooking and promoting the large event.
Eddie Farmer, Unicoi County resident, has been cooking at the Ramp Festival for more than 30 years.
“I’ve been here since 6:30 a.m. this morning cooking,” Farmer said during the festival on Saturday. “The festival is just a really good thing for the community and we try to give back in different ways.”
For those who really took a liking to their ramp meal, ramps were available for sale, allowing many excited event goers to purchase their own bundles to take home and prepare.
Ed Sparks and Donald Shelton returned to the Ramp Festival for the 10th year to sell some ramps they had harvested.
“I’ve been eating them for about 65 years,” said Shelton. “I went to school here (Flag Pond School) in 1950. There’s plenty of ramps here if you go in the mountains … they grow in higher elevations”
Sparks and Shelton stayed busy as plenty of festival goers were eager to purchase a bundle of ramps that they could take home and cook up on their own.
“Ramps can be hard to get, but we like to do it for the Ruritan,” said Sparks. “We like the company, music and food at the festival.”
While the Ramp Festival was attended by countless locals to the Flag Pond area, there were attendees from neighboring counties and some who traveled more than a couple of hours to take part in the memorable event.
Johnson City residents Jeff and Delores Moore attended the festival for the first time this year and were eager to try the foraged delicacy for the first time.
“It’s a great festival and I didn’t know anything about ramps before attending the festival,” said Delores.
Jeff said he greatly enjoyed the memory room in the school, a bit of a time capsule that allowed people to learn about the history of the Flag Pond Community, the Ruritan club, and of course ramps.
“That is really awesome,” Jeff said about the room. “I didn’t know there was so much history and cultural significance associated with ramps.”
One of the main attractions at the festival was a memory room in which an informational video put together by East Tennessee State University showed ramps being foraged and how to prepare them.
Laurie Handshu, who traveled all the way from Nashville to attend the event, said she fell in love with ramps after she tried them for the first time in college.
“I fell in love, it was love at first stink,” Handshu said about her first experience trying ramps many years ago. “I lived here a long time ago, about 20 years ago, and I would always come to the festival every year.”
Handshu said she was happy to be back in Flag Pond for the day and described the festival as a “wonderful” event.
“It’s everything it should be,” she said.
While the penetrating aroma of ramps can be a deterrent for some, Handshu said it’s part of the fun of eating them and added that she enjoys other “stinky” foods such as garlic and onions. Waldrop also commented on the powerful smell ramps leave on their consumers and shared a few stories of his own experiences.
“When I was a young’un we’d eat them then go to school and they’d kick us out on the street,” said Waldrop, who recently had a comical encounter during a roadblock after he had eaten some ramps. “I pulled up and the state trooper said ‘are you drinking?”
Waldrop told the officer no, however she did share that she had indulged in quite a few ramps that day.
“‘Get out of there’ he said … he didn’t even check my driver’s license,” Waldrop laughed.
For attendees at the festival, any concerns of bad breath were thrown out the window as people chowed down on platefuls of ramps all throughout the day.
Before the event was over, a ramp eating contest was held and last year’s winner once again proved to have a true liking for ramps. Jasmine Shelton is still the reigning champion of the youth and adult class of the contest and was able to eat 15 ramps in one minute this year.
“This festival is special because it shows that we’re a close community here and everyone knows everybody,” said Waldrop. “We couldn’t do all of this without our neighbors and friends.”