Ramps are the first green thing of spring in Appalachia, and certainly the smelliest. Mountain folks have traditionally looked forward to the return of the ramp after a winter of eating mostly dried foods, often believing the ramp to possess the revitalizing power of a spring tonic (not unreasonable: they are high in vitamins A & C.)
The “little stinkers” are typically served with ham, bacon, fried potatoes, brown beans, cornbread, and a dessert. If you’re a serious aficionado of allium tricoccum, you know it’s an acquired taste: take garlic and multiply that intensity by about ten. The mere scent of those who have recently eaten a mess of ramps has been known to clear a room.
The Ramps & Rainbow Festival got underway March 26 this year at the Cherokee Indian Fairgrounds in Cherokee, NC, kicking off a month and more of festivals celebrating the most loved bulb in Appalachia. The high points of these community fundraisers include the Ramp Festival at Cosby, TN, and the Feast of the Ramson (this year is the 76th one) at Richwood, WV. But many smaller events proliferate throughout April and well into May.
Feast of the Ramson? Ramson is a variety of garlic, but there’s a more poetic answer to the question: the first sign of the Zodiac calendar is Aries, which ushers in spring during March and April. Aries is the Arabic word for Ram, the male of the sheep family—stout, rambunctious, and a bit odoriferous! It only makes sense to call spring’s first green shoot the “Ram’s Son.”
When the first ramp feed was held in Cherry Bottom, VA (now Richwood) is lost to history. That there were springtime get-togethers of frontier settlers with ramp feeds is certain. Ramp feasting as an event began about 1921 when some Richwood men met for a cookout during ramp season. Eventually their gathering moved indoors and came under the jurisdiction of the Chamber of Commerce. The success of the Richwood event inspired other communities to start their own dinners. The town went on to become home to the NRA—the National Ramp Association.
Festivals celebrating a community point of pride were not commonplace in 1954 when the Cosby Ruritan Club of Cocke County TN decided to establish a celebration centered around the ramp. The first Festival attracted a crowd of between 5,000 and 6,000, including the Tennessee governor. Although the festival differs from year to year, there have been common threads: bountiful food, music, dancing, politicians, and a young woman who is crowned “Maid of Ramps.”
In 1955, the Festival was attended by ex-President Harry Truman. In 1959, at the sixth annual Ramp Festival, attendance approached a never-again-topped 30,000 due to the featured guest, “Tennessee Ernie Ford,” a popular television celebrity, and native of nearby Bristol. Other festivals have featured entertainment notables such as Eddie Arnold, Roy Acuff, Bill Monroe, songstress Dorothy Collins of “Hit Parade” fame, Minnie Pearl, Brenda Lee, and Dinah Shore.
But no matter which of the many available ramp festivals you choose to attend, two factors remain unchanged: the celebration of the region and its culture, and the return of spring and the adulation of the ramp.
related post: “The salient feature of ramps is the smell”