Ramps & Ruritans: Tales of the Revered and Reeking Leek

Posted by | April 29, 2013

Even fancy upscale restaurants in New York City are crazy for ramps these days: this past April 17, Momofuku’s official Twitter feed sent this out:

ramps are back and in full effect for lunch + dinner at ssäm bar. ramp brine martini on tonight’s menu…

Ramp. Brine. Martini.

Well. For folks in the Unicoi County, TN town of Flag Pond, all the food world notoriety has yet to overshadow the age-old reality of ramps, potatoes, bacon grease, and black iron. Every spring, members of that town’s Ruritan Club knock the dirt off their shovels and spades, and tune up their sturdiest four-wheel drives. They’re headed up: Flag Pond’s elevation is 2038 feet, but ramps are typically happiest at elevations of 3,000 feet and higher.

New video from East Tennessee State University on the Flag Pond, TN annual ramp festival.

New video from East Tennessee State University on the Flag Pond, TN annual ramp festival.

Flag Pond’s Scots-Irish, German, and Cherokee ancestors have sought the wild mountain leek, or wati to the Cherokee, for generations. They eat ramps for renewal — according to legend, ramps thin down slow-flowing blood. Their pungency energizes bodies grown accustomed to cold-weather inactivity.

And after months of wintertime restlessness, ramps reconnect mountainfolk to the earth, and to each other.

Flag Pond’s 28th annual Rurirtan Ramp Festival takes place May 11, when the long-abandoned Flag Pond School gets a scrub-down in prepartion for 1,000 visitors. Members of the club staff a line of black iron skillets and stir ramps into fried potatoes.

“We have people from several different states come,” says Ruritan club member Charles Harris. “We’ve never changed our menu. You get ramps and potatoes. Of course, if you ask, we’ll give you three or four raw. Soup beans, coleslaw, cornbread, a drink, and a dessert. And streaked meat. It’s one of the biggest things that happens in Flag Pond.”

With school consolidation in Unicoi County, many residents missed the opportunity for regular visits with their neighbors. That’s one reason the Ruritan Club started the festival, in the mid-1980s.

The gathering also raises the ramp to a much-deserved level of respectability. From stories of getting sent home from school for having ramp breath, Unicoi Countians move very quickly to anecdotes about ramps and hot-shot chefs, starched linen tablecloths, and the cost of the wild mountain leek in New York City markets (“This year we started at $17 per pound,” says specialty food purveyor John Magazino of NYC’s Baldor.)

The Ramps & Ruritans video shown here is a delightful half hour documentary which follows Flag Pond’s Ruritan club members from their digging excursions in the hills straight through to the final May dining extravaganza. It was produced last year by East Tennessee State’s Office of University Relations and the Center for Appalachian Studies in partnership with Flag Pond’s Ruritan Club. Even if you’ve grown up with ramps, there’s probably a nugget of ramp lore teased out by this video that you may not have encountered before. The ramps diggers talk about such things as the male and female stalks of the plant — one stalk’s white, the other pinkish — and the need for both in a ramp field. There’s an emphasis on taking care not to disturb the plant’s deep roots (ramps rise from a rhizome, or in some species, a stolon).

“This is branch lettuce,” says club member Mary Waldrop as the camera zooms in on a delicate plant growing adjacent to a ramps cluster. “It grows near a stream normally, and older people used to gather branch lettuce and ramps in the early spring of the year. They would take them home and wash them and chop them up into bite-sized pieces, then make cornbread, and they would fry bacon to get the hot grease, and they would put it over the ramps and branch lettuce. They called it ‘killing’ the ramps and branch lettuce.”

The production values on ‘Ramps & Ruritans’ are straightforward. No fancy overhead tracking shots or aerials, minimal lighting, lots of handheld shots while tramping through the woods. Sandwiched between the location footage in the ramps woods are tight headshots of Flag Ponders discussing their own ramps experiences. And these production decisions are absolutely appropriate to the breezy folk style of the telling. Well worth the $12 asking price.

‘Ramps & Ruritans: Tales of the Revered and Reeking Leek of Flag Pond, Tennessee’ is available online at the East Tennesse State University Store. 



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