Ramp On!

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A ramp is a sloping path or access way, a movable set of stairs, or it even “verbs” itself by increasing something gradually, but a ramp by any other name would smell … well, stronger than you might expect. What are the “ramps” that Chef Justin McArthur is calling for in his prize winning potato recipe?

The plot of one of Grimm’s tales, Rapunzel, stems (pun intended) from the theft of rampions from a magician’s garden, but our ramps is not a shortened form for that herb.

The following facts and history about ramps are available on the Web through Patrick Bradford of Yancey, N.C. He credits much of his research to both Ricky Silvers and an article written in part by M.J. McCormick for Herb Companion; March 1991.

Bradford states that Mountain people of the Southeast have honored the savory plants, which they call ramps, for many years and celebrate the occasion of their emergence in the spring as a prompt to begin their own planting.

Apparently their plants were somewhat similar to the cultivated leeks available through many seed catalogs today. They, too, have escaped into the wild and become naturalized in some of the eastern states.

The use of leeks dates at least as far back as the Egyptians and the time of the Pharaohs. The Holy Bible, Numbers 11:5, states, “We remember the fish, which we did eat in Egypt freely; the cucumbers, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlic:”

All leeks, native or otherwise, are generally alike. They belong to the large lily family and are close relatives of the onion, garlic, shallot and chives. Their genus, Allium, is Latin for garlic. Many people claim the odor and taste are a pleasant combination of onion and garlic. Indeed, Bradford feels that the flavor of leeks is considerably more like that of garlic than onion.

The Appalachian name “ramp” comes from the British Isles. One story has it, the English folk name “ramson” (son of Ram), referred to the plant’s habit of appearing during the sign of Aries; March 20 to April 20; on the zodiac calendar. Another source indicates that the folk name was “ramsen,” the plural form of an Old English word for wild garlic, “hramsa.” Either way, English settlers of Appalachia called the wild plants by their English folk name, which later was shortened to “ramp.”

To early Native Americans and, later, the white settlers, ramps were regarded as a spring tonic that cleansed the blood. Modern science supports this folk tradition. Alliums are a good source of Vitamin C, a fleeting nutrient that was often lacking in winter diets.

Native Americans knew ramps well. They used its extracts to treat coughs and colds and made poultices from the juice of the strong summer bulbs to alleviate the pain and itching of bee stings.

Now that modern technology has given us a steady, year-round supply of fresh fruit and vegetables, our dietary need for ramps as a spring tonic has diminished. But to mountain folk, especially those in central West Virginia and western North Carolina where the tradition still lingers, the social medicine conferred by ramps is an integral rite of spring, a spiritual need.

In Menominee, a most endangered Native American language, “Machnow-pematesenon yohpeh!” Live well today!

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