Ramp Fests Add Flavor, Stench, to Appalachian Spring

April 29, 2005

On Sunday, Cathey Owens vows to give the ramps on her dinner plate to the first person who will take the onionlike herbs. With upward of 3,000 people expected to attend the 52nd annual Cosby Ramp Festival in Cosby, Tennessee, finding a taker should be easy.

"If you eat one, you're going to stink, and the more you eat, the more you're going to stink," said Owens, who is helping to organize the annual event in Cosby.

Some people like ramps and others don't, Owens said. She doesn't. But she likes the festival, which is a time to celebrate the arrival of spring and the cultural history of Appalachia.

Also known as wild leeks, ramps are members of the same family as garlic, scallions, and onions. Poking up through leaf litter on the forest floor, their green circles of sword-shaped leaves are among the first signs of spring in the region. Once the trees turn fully green and block the sun, the ramps go away for another year.

The vegetable's taste is described as an appetizing mixture of its kin: garlicky onion. The smell is what keeps some would-be connoisseurs at bay. It's pungent and can linger for days.

The smell oozes out of the pores of sweaty folk. In years past, schoolchildren who gorged on the spring veggies were often excused from classes for several days. "You can imagine in a one-room classroom—especially with little boys getting overheated—and what that smelled like," Owens said.

Ramps are native to eastern North American mountains. The plants are found in moist deciduous (non-evergreen) forests as far north as Canada, as far south as North Carolina and Tennessee, and as far west as Missouri and Minnesota.

The first European settlers here are thought to have learned to eat ramps from Native Americans. Both groups presumably saw the herbs as a spring tonic rich in vitamins and minerals after a long winter without fresh vegetables.

Ramp Festivals

The Cosby Ramp Festival is one of about a dozen held in small towns throughout Appalachia this time of year. Most come replete with ramp-based foods, arts-and-crafts vendors, music, and dancing.

"It's just a big celebration of spring," Owens said.

On Saturday the Swiss-themed village of Helvetia, West Virginia, will hold its annual ramp dinner. Sandy Burky, a community volunteer, said that about 300 people are expected to attend the feast of potatoes, coleslaw, applesauce, ham, and of course, fried and fresh ramps.

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