In Brooklyn, you know it’s officially springtime that week in April when suddenly ramps start showing up on the menu at every restaurant in town. But what exactly are ramps, and why are they the darling of so many hip chefs? And what’s a home cook to do to enjoy ramps the 49 weeks of the year that they aren’t on the menu?
So what are ramps, anyway?
Ramps are a wild onion. They look rather like a scallion, except the white bulb end is rounder and more, well, bulbous, and the green end elongates into flat, slender green leaves. You can eat the whole thing. They have a flavor somewhere between garlic and onion.
Starting around mid-April, forest floors across eastern North America are blanketed in wide swaths of wild ramps, the deep green leaves bursting forth so abundantly that they look like an ankle-high ramp forest at the feet of the tall, deciduous trees. They pop up first in Georgia, then spread out west all the way to Missouri and up north to Montreal. Ramps have been eaten by Native Americans in these areas for roughly 12,000 years. As recently as a century ago, they were still an important food for local folks who relied on foraging for a significant part of their diet, but pretty much unknown to (or, perhaps, actively avoided by) anyone else. Chances are they remained unpopular in genteel society at least partly because the people who ate them often ate a lot of them—and they smelled like it. Story has it that back in the day, Appalachian schoolkids who had gorged on ramps were often excused from class for days afterward.
From obscurity to obsession.
In recent decades ramps have been celebrated in the spring at ramp festivals in towns across Appalachia. The first recipes for ramps were published in the 1970s in Appalachian cookbooks. But the real turning point promoting their fame to urban foodies seems to have come from their New York Times debut in a 1982 article about an upstate New York restaurant that was breaking ground with the newfangled idea of serving edible flowers and wild foraged herbs. The following year Gourmet introduced ramps to the masses with two recipes in their April issue: a ramp tart and a cheddary ramp grits soufflé.
Over the years to come, ramps took off in big restaurants. In the 1990s, they featured on springtime New York menus at Gramercy Tavern and Savoy, paired with everything from spaghetti and spaetzle to cod and sweetbreads. A decade later, home cooks had started searching them out at farmer’s markets and—sometimes—fighting over the last bunches. By 2010, ramp mania was so pervasive that Time magazine declared ramps to be “the new arugula.” And in the years since, their popularity has only seemed to rise, showing up in everything from pizza to cocktails.
If ramps are nothing but an obscure onion relative, why are they so much more popular than chives or leeks or shallots? It probably comes down to the fact that they are a very rare onion relative. They’re only available about three weeks of the year. Those happen to be the first three weeks of springtime, before anything else fresh and new is available, making them a harbinger of the season to come. And even during those few weeks, they’re not easy to find. Ramps are tough to grow at home—you need just the right conditions in your garden, and even then it takes years to see if you’ll ever get a crop. Since they’re so challenging to raise, ramps are practically never grown commercially. That means the only way to get ramps is to forage for them, making their rarity—and the mania to get them—all the greater. The hunt for wild ramps is a little akin to the treasure hunt for wild mushrooms.
To eat ramps, first you have to find them.
Each spring, at the edge of the Smoky Mountains in Tennessee, the team at Blackberry Farm works with local foragers to sustainably gather the year’s local ramp crop. That’s important—ramps are slow-growing, and over-harvesting can decimate the wild patches. Once a ramp patch has been depleted, it can take half a decade or longer for wild ramps to grow back. That’s not just bad news for next year’s ramp lovers, it can be bad news for woodland ecology, too. Decimated ramp patches can quickly become home to invasive species.
The overharvesting of ramps has become such a problem that in some places—including in Great Smoky Mountain National Park, just across the valley from Blackberry Farm—foraging for ramps has been banned. Likewise, in Quebec it’s illegal to sell ramps—but that hasn’t stopped Canadian ramp poachers from illegally foraging them in Quebec and then smuggling the illicit bulbs in hockey bags to sell them in Ontario. (What is it with the Quebecois and their food heists, anyway?)
To harvest ramps sustainably, a forager should never harvest more than 10% of a ramp patch in a year. And better yet, ramps ought to be harvested in the traditional Cherokee method: mature ramp bulbs should be cut above the roots, rather than yanked out whole, so that the plant can continue growing. Harvesting this way is much more painstaking, but helps to ensure there will be ramps next year, too.
To eat ramps year round, you have to preserve them.
The idea of pickled ramps might seem like a hip New York chef’s latest dream to combine a trendy vegetable with a trendy preparation, but pickled ramps are nothing new. For generations, preserving the harvest has been a vital part of survival for many in the hollers of the Appalachians. Following those local traditions, at Blackberry Farm, they pickle the ramp bulbs in a brine of vinegar, water, sea salt, mustard seed, dill seed, and a pinch of pepper flakes. When they’re ready to eat they have a sharp aroma of vinegar and raw garlic, but the flavor is much more gentle, with the sweet, rich notes of roasted garlic.
The flavor is so good you could eat these pickled ramps plain—I sure have. But better yet, you could cook with them. They add a lovely depth to sauces; try blending some into an aioli for fish or grilled meats, or as a dip for vegetables. Toss them on top of a homemade pizza with a drizzle of good olive oil. Try them with a tangy fresh cheese or pimento cheese spread on top of a cracker. Or replace the onion in your martini with a pickled ramp. When the jar is empty, don’t toss out the brine—use it in soups, sauces, vinaigrettes, or even cocktails to add a last whisper of ramp flavor.