They’re the first greens of the season, and they’re coming up right about now. Ramps, (Allium tricoccum or Allium tricoccum var. burdickii, Alliaceae) also known as wild leeks, are native to the Appalachian mountains. Ramps can be found growing in patches in rich, moist, deciduous forests as far north as Canada, west to Missouri and Minnesota, and south to North Carolina and Tennessee.
Back before supermarkets arrived they provided necessary vitamins and minerals following long winter months without access to fresh fruits and vegetables.
The salient feature of ramps is the smell. The Menominee Indians called it “pikwute sikakushia”: the skunk. “Shikako,” their name for a large ramp patch that once flourished in northern Illinois, has been anglicized to Chicago: “the skunk place.”
Ramps are pleasant to eat and taste like spring onions with a strong garlic-like aroma. They are often prepared by frying in butter or animal fat with sliced potatoes or scrambled eggs. They are also used as an ingredient in other dishes such as soup, pancakes, and hamburgers. They can also be pickled or dried for use later in the year.
On the heels of ramps a host of other greens start popping up: dandelions, poke, shawnee lettuce, woolen britches, creasies, and lamb’s tongue. And around these, women have fashioned womens’ worlds. “That was the big deal, when everybody used to go green picking,” says Carrie Lou Jarrell, of Sylvester, WV.
“That was the event of the week. Mrs. Karen Thomas would come up and she always brought Jessie Graybill with her, and then Miss Haddad would come, and most of the time Maggie Wriston came with her. And usually Sylvia Williams was always there to do green picking with them. I knew from the time I came into the world that she was just a good friend. But that was the thrill of my life to get to go with all of these women, because they talked about good stuff.”
The women laugh over how Violet Dickens once mistook sassafras tea for bacon grease and poured it over the frying ramps: “We need you to come season the ramps,” Mabel kidded her. They compare the aromas of poke and collard greens, and marvel at how window screens get black with flies when you’re cooking them. They wonder where the creasies (dry land cress) are growing this year, and Jenny points out that creasies won’t grow unless you till the soil.
“Tending the Commons: Folklife and Landscape in Southern West Virginia”; Library of Congress/American Memories http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/collections/tending/essay4b.html