When you’re just a wee one, holidays, events, seasons, even full moons carry an importance and anticipation that inevitably wanes as adulthood creeps in. These moments begin as simply something to do, yet evolve into traditions that can span generations that inherently leave a mark within a community of people.
For generations, winter was a hard time for the folks of Appalachia. Darkness was long and fresh food was about as scarce as hen’s teeth. So when the first vestiges of spring begun to creep up along the mountainsides, the folks in this area knew that freshness and life wasn’t far behind.
The first tender shoots of an Appalachian spring would poke their heads up from the forest floor and the meadows and people like my papaw would scour the area looking for fresh greens. He would harvest henbit, deadnettle, dandelion, and borage, green spring onions, and the first morels of the season. He and Mamaw would feast on fresh wild salads for weeks to (as he always put it) purify the gut and blood. He wasn’t as crazy as you may think. After a winter of salted cured meats, canned fruits and vegetables, and dried goods, the vitamins and minerals found in these fresh mountain greens helped to purge the body of that salty and fatty buildup and pumped their starved bodies full of fiber. And so what was simply a common occurrence and a small necessity for them, became a sort of tradition for us. And the holy grail of spring foraging was the beloved ramp.
Technically speaking, ramps are a member of the onion family…allium tricoccum to be more precise, and once filled specific mountainsides above 3,000 feet with their springtime glory. But if you’ve ever tried a ramp, you’ll be quick to realize that it’s like no onion you’ve ever had before. They’re strong…not so much in flavor, but how, after eating enough of them, your body sweats them out for days. And so it was, that each spring, Papaw would round up the family to summit the Cohuttas to a very special patch of ramps that he harvested each year. And as he aged, it became a big family affair. We would hike the mountain with backpacks, buckets, and baskets, spend the morning hours amongst the solitude of ancient forests digging out the tubers and filling our baskets. Mamaw and Mama would sing as they worked, and the breeze would carry those old mountain hymns on their voices down the mountainsides. We never even came close to gathering all of the ramp patch. That would practically be sacrilegious, as one must always leave enough for those who come after and for future years of harvesting.
The next day, we would gather again on Mamaw’s front porch and yard to clean the ramps. Papaw would fill buckets of water and light a pile of pine needles to keep the gnats at bay and we would clean. Daddy would pull his car up under the giant and ancient white pines in the yard and turn on the car radio for us all to listen to, and as the grownups cleaned and talked, the youngins would spin in circles in the tire swing and jitterbug to the sounds of Johnny Cash and Loretta Lynn.
The gentlemen folk would pack the old mason jars to the brim with the white and pink part of the ramps, leaving the greens for drying. And as the ladies went inside to prepare the evening meal, we set to making the brine to pickle the jars of ramps. It’s simple really…a bit of vinegar, a bit of water, a touch of sugar and salt, with just the right amount of thyme and peppercorns…that’s all that is needed for the flavor of the reps to shine through.
Supper came and we feasted on platefulls of soup beans with ramps, cornbread with fresh butter, fried potatoes with ramps, pickled peppers and okra, and usually a slap of nearly burnt porkchop, all with a jar full of freshly cleaned raw ramps that sat in the middle of the table for all to enjoy.
We did this every year. What started as necessity for my grandparents, evolved into helping him as he grew older, which evolved into a tradition that carried on for years to come. And we ain’t the only family in these parts with a story similar to our own. Ramp tramps and ramp festivals have popped up all over Appalachia. Each a bit different, but almost all involving good food, ramps, bluegrass, and community.
My grandparents are gone from this life, and my mom and dad can’t make the hike up the mountain anymore. My youngings are grown and just starting a life of their own. Now each year I stop in to the ramp tramp held over in Reliance and enjoy a Friday evening by the creek listening to a few fellers pick out some mountain sounds of their banjo and fiddle while enjoying some food and fellowship. But each spring about the time the dogwoods bloom, I still get that twinge of anticipation of a schoolboy. And just after the sun rises, I make that hike up the mountain to the old ramp patch. And if I close my eyes I can see the pictures in my mind of the whole family gathered round singing those old haunting tunes. So as I dig…I sing…for may these tunes and words forever flow down the mountainside during the heart of an Appalachian spring in the season of the ramps.