By Keith Whitson
This bulb-forming perennial with broad, smooth, light green leaves, often with deep purple or burgundy tints on the lower stems, produces a scallion-like stalk and bulb, which are edible.
Jeopardy music starts. Duh duh duh duh duh duh duh, dum da dum dum da dum dum.
Alex, what is allium tricoccum, celebrated with a festival in Flag Pond, Tenn. every year.
That is the scientific name for the ramp, which was celebrated with high honors at Saturday’s Annual Ramp Festival in Flag Pond. Cooler temperatures didn’t hold back the crowds or the desire to sample the mountain treat.
When conditions are right, ramps sprout in large patches in the early spring sun. Consistent soil moisture, canopy cover and a relatively high elevation are the essential ingredients for ramps’ habitat. The name is derived from its garlicky cousin which grows in Europe called ramson, named after the “son of the ram” of Aries, the zodiac sign that coincides with the spring equinox.
The bulb has long been recognized by early settlers and Indians. The Cherokee consider it a spring tonic for colds and croup. They also use the warm juice for earaches. Today most consider it a tasty find whether used for cooking or eaten raw.
The plant’s flavor is a combination of onions and strong garlic. Ramps are most commonly fried with potatoes in bacon fat or scrambled with eggs and served with bacon, pinto beans and cornbread. Ramps can also be pickled or used in soups and other foods in place of onions and garlic.
Monday I called Richard Waldrop, who is one of the main coordinators of the Flag Pond festival. He said it was nearly impossible to make an accurate guess as to how many were in attendance, but the food eaten indicated a large crowd.
The Flag Pond Ruritan Club cooked and prepared 850 pounds of potatoes during the day. They went through 22 gallons of cleaned ramps and sold 250 bundles of ramps, averaging about 20 per bundle. That’s quite a task to satisfy quite a hunger for the ramp.
Some folks actually like ramps for their taste, while others are on hand to try them for the experience. Cooked ramps are much milder than the raw form, which can linger on the breath for days. The act of eating ramps seems to come with bragging rights and the breath to prove your case.
I find that most men prefer them more than women do. It seems to actually form male bonding, kind of like an exclusive club where eating ramps is the initiation. It also adds some teasing fun if the wives aren’t fond of the strong breath the men bring back into the house.
I have heard stories of elementary school boys in the past who would consume large amounts of ramps so the teacher would send them home. The odor was being disruptive to the entire classroom.
Part of the appeal is the fact that the small bulbs only last a short time and are not in great abundance. Several states require a permit to be able to dig ramps, as well as a limitation on how many can be harvested.
The seeds of wild Ramps take six to 18 months to germinate, and the plants take five to seven years to produce seeds. Each time a ramp is removed from the forest before it goes to seed, its life cycle ends. The late 20th century surge in its popularity left hundreds of acres of forest floors void, that were previously covered in ramps during spring.
Many famous chefs and restaurants have also caught onto the flavor and appeal. Martha Stewart has developed numerous recipes with the bulb. She has ramp butter, ramp quiche, watercress and ramp soup, spaghetti and ramps and more. Restaurants in New York and Washington D.C. have added ramp dishes to the menu.
Whether you like your ramps elevated to the gourmet level, kept on the home-style appeal or even raw, the popularity is definitely growing faster than the supply. However, few places will offer you the atmosphere you find at the Flag Pond Ramp Festival. That’s why folks continue to come back year after year and introduce a younger generation to the mountain tradition.
Large tents with plenty of tables and chairs were set up Saturday to accommodate a crowd, offering a place to eat, relax and listen to hours of live bluegrass entertainment, featuring some of the county’s finest. Several booths were also set up to offer food, crafts and information.
Youngsters always enjoy the grounds of the former school building, taking advantage of the swings and grassy spots.
A visit to the Flag Pond Ramp Festival is like a visit home to see family. The peaceful surroundings, the warmth and charm of the people and the generous hospitality, offer perfect conditions for cultivating many more ramp festivals in the future.
Each community of Unicoi County is special and each has its own unique flavor to bring to the pot. It’s no wonder locals want to stay here, outsiders want to retire here and visitors flock to experience the beauty and many offerings of Unicoi County.