Photo by Dano272/Flickr CC
I was sitting on the porch of a friend's house in a tiny town deep in the West Virginia Appalachians when a woman walked up and introduced herself. She was a forager, she said, hired by New York chef Gray Kunz to buy up all the ramps and morels--wild leeks and mushrooms, that is--she could get hold of. Somebody sent her my way because I'm from New York and a cook, and I'd been rooting around for the same thing for years.
"Damn," I thought on hearing of her connection to Kunz. "The hungry maw of New York has found its way here, even."
"Here" being the town I where retreated because it seems like one of the few remote places left in America, isolated by mountains and rough winding roads, untouched by the relentless din of the mainstream.
I had to admit, I was part of that maw, too, living a city life and hungry for more than I found there, hungry for the hottest of commodities: real food and whatever else I could find with roots in the wild--unplanned, unregulated, unprocessed, unkempt. It's the reason I first barreled down to West Virginia 35 years ago with friends to the Helvetia ramp supper, taking two days to travel four hours, stopping at roadhouses like the Lulu Belle Inn with a pink neon sign that said "Lulu Belle" against the starry sky and the Blue Rock Baptist church, spare and quiet as a bone.
All this is the backstory of the ramps, a personal cultural history that to me is part of their power and why I love to eat them.
What I found in Helvetia was a feast served family-style in the community hall by the Farm Women's Association: ham, beans, cornbread, slaw, applesauce, hash browns, ramps raw and cooked. Depending on the weather, the raw ramps, like a lily of the valley with a scallion bulb, could range from fiercely peppery to sweetly pungent riffs on garlic-leek-shallot-chive. Fried with rendered bacon in an iron skillet, they melted into spinachy greens, their flavors deeply mellowed. The supper was followed at dusk by a square dance that rocked the hall for hours with fiddle music whose wild strains reverberated throughout the valley. These people meant it.
Photo by Laurie Smith
The yearly ramp supper celebrates the first living thing to poke through the ground in spring and the end of a long, harsh winter. You eat "messes of ramps", enough to register profoundly on body and spirit in a rampy sweat that works its way through your pores and makes you exude a feral smell of onions, musk and earth, makes you feel the life force of the mountains coursing through your blood. There, I also found native trout, violet jam, dandelion wine that tasted like a fine Sauterne, raw milk cheeses aged in cool, sweet-smelling cellars, morels, bear, venison, and an extraordinary mincemeat made from a hog's head.
But more than that, I found amazing people, many of them ancient, who remembered a whole other way of life: Swiss that settled in Appalachia and became a mix of the two to make a culture as complex and beautiful as anything I'd found in travels to Europe or South America. Their food arose out of simple necessity. It's what was there, or what frugal people could do with what was there, like my friend Kay who hunts wild turkey and deer to fill her freezer every fall. Last spring she gave me some turkey thighs to try cooking.
Photo by Sally Schneider
After four and a half hours of slow braising in wine the meat finally became tender but was so laced with dark flavors that it was to hard to face. Kay told me the turkey must have been feeding on ramps--wild multiplied. She'd thrown hers away. All this is the backstory of the ramps, a personal cultural history that to me is part of their power and why I love to eat them.
The forager chatted a bit and went on her way. I thought of sitting in Telepan or Babbo or any other fine restaurant in a big American city in spring and finding ramps on the menu, a nod to the season. Those ramps are invariably tamed, stripped bare of their assertive flavor and stink by careful cooking so they won't overwhelm, served in portions so meager as to seem sacramental due no doubt to their scarcity and fleeting season. Even so, I suspect that the simple fact of their being wild can shift our view slightly and remind us of another side of things.
I am haunted by the question, "Where is wild?" I need that primal connection to live. So I forage New York in my city way, eyes peeled. Ramps dug in the Catskills are in abundance in the Union Square farmer's market in May. I'll buy an armful to take home and cook myself a proper mess, or make a raw ramp and cornbread sandwich layered with shavings of cold butter, to keep me sane, make me feel, through all difficulties, that I am alive and grounded, fed.
Recipe: Pasta with Ramps
Here, ramps are cooked extra-virgin olive oil and tossed with pasta and Parmigiano Reggiano, a wild play on the classic Italian pasta with garlic, pepperoncino and greens. This dish is also delicious made with pancetta instead of the olive oil. Dice the pancetta and cooked covered until crisp and the fat is rendered; then proceed as directed. (The basic method of cleaning and skillet-cooking ramps is useful for all manner of recipes and improvisations.)
• 1 1/4 -to 1 1/2 pounds fresh ramps
• 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil or half oil and half butter
• 1/8-1/4 teaspoon crushed dried Italian red pepper (peperoncino) or red pepper flakes
• 1/2 pound dry pasta, in any shape, such as penne, linguine or orecchiette
• Freshly ground pepper
• 1/2 - 3/4 cup grated Parmigiano Reggiano or Pecorino cheese
To prepare the ramps, trim off the roots with a paring knife and slip off any discolored or dead skin that clings to the bulbs. Wash the ramps in several changes of water and drain well. (As you clean the ramps, stack into loose bundles, so the bulbs and leaves are lined up; this will make them easier to cut). Place on a cutting board and cut off the bulbs; cut the leaves in half crosswise. Reserve both bulbs and leaves. Put a large pot of water on to boil.
In a large nonstick skillet, set over low heat, combine the the ramp bulbs, olive oil and 1/3 cup water; cover and cook until the bulbs are soft about 10 to 15 minutes. Add the peperoncino, and cook, tossing frequently, about 1 minute. With a tablespoon, scoop about 1 tablelspoon of the oil into a small bowl and reserve. Add the ramp greens to the pan along with 1/2 teaspoon salt and about 3 tablespoons water.
Cover and cook over moderately high heat, tossing frequently until the greens are tender and the water has completely evaporated about 5 minutes (if the water evaporates before the greens are cooked, add tablespoon or two more to the pan.) If too much water is left in the pan once the vegetables are cooked through, uncover, increase the heat to high and boil it off, or simply drain it off). Turn the heat to low and cook, stirring occasionally, until the bulbs and greens are meltingly tender and the greens are no longer stringy. Turn off the heat.
Meanwhile, salt the boiling water well. Add the pasta and cook until tender but still slightly firm to the bite. Using a measuring cup, scoop out about 1/4 cup of the cooking water and reserve. Drain the pasta well.
Pour the reserved cooking water back into the pasta pot. Add the reserved ramp oil, and the cooked ramps and bring to a boil for 30 seconds. Add the drained pasta and toss to coat, seasoning with salt and plenty of freshly ground pepper. Divide the pasta among four warm shallow soup bowls, spooning some of the vegetables over each. Serve at once passing the cheese on the side.