Sunday, May 4, 2014

Ramps for Breakfast

Ramps are Allium tricoccum, a member of the onion/garlic/chive genus. They grow in springtime and were considered by old-time Appalachian folk as "tonic herbs", along with poke, cress, dandelions and such. Tonic herbs are leafy plants with a bite or bitterness that were eaten in the spring to counteract the lack of fresh vegetables over the winter, according to folk medicine.

It's easier to get the old-timey Appalachian produce like ramps and pawpaws here in upstate NY than when I lived in Cleveland, because they only grow well in hilly and dampish areas and they don't ship well. However, I did read that the city of Chicago got its name from the native word for a patch of ramps growing along Lake Michigan.

Every description of ramps makes a big deal about how smelly and garlicky they are. They do smell garlicky when you get them cooking, but not as much as garlic itself. They might have seemed pungent compared to the very bland traditional cooking of Appalachia, which was mainly Scottish in origin, but would hardly raise an eyebrow today.

I got some ramps yesterday at my fantastic grocery store, the Niskayuna Co-Op.  They're trendy now, so these ramps, labeled as "foraged from the Hudson Valley", cost $15 a pound. But you gotta jump on them because they're only available for a few weeks each year.

I fried up the ramps this morning in a tiny bit of bacon grease and ate them with eggs. Fried, they have a deep but not sharp garlic flavor that stays on your breath. They are slightly sweet and not as bitter as some other greens. They'd probably also go very well with fried potatoes.

There is another kind of ramp that grew in Appalachia - people! In Southwestern Virginia in the 1800s, there was a class of darkish-skinned people who were thought to have some Indian or black ancestry and therefore were near the absolute bottom of the social hierarchy, along with free blacks. One thing that is clear is that they had a large German component. They were called ramps - some people think it's because they ate ramps, but my own theory is they may have migrated from the Ramapo Mountains of New Jersey where there is a similar class of people even today.

Apparently "ramp" was what other people called you, not what you would call yourself, so if you are descended from ramps you won't really know it. But my grandmother's mother came from Southwest Virginia, lived in a group of about four family names (Thomas, Hand, Van Huss, Widener and a couple others) that almost exclusively intermarried with each other for generations, were sometimes listed as "mulatto" in the census, and included at least one guy with six toes (a sign of inbreeding.) So you can put two and two together. They had an old aunt living with them who was born before 1800 in New Jersey. These were the people my great-grandfather, no prize himself, said were "not good people." Well, we turned out OK for the most part, so they couldn't have been all bad.

As-foraged. You have to rinse the dirt off and cut off the roots.

They take about 5 minutes to fry up 



 

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