How ramps went from an Appalachian staple to urban restaurant trend.
If you haven’t heard, it’s ramps season. A comedy video from TikTok user Jake W. Cornell parodying a well-heeled Brooklyn dad panicking that his kid wouldn’t get to experience this year’s “ramps season” before it’s over has gone viral. “I’ve tried three markets, I’m literally in the park foraging right now and there are no ramps!” he yells into the phone at his husband.
The video has nearly a million views, and the comments are full of two types of people in particular — those saying they also love ramps season, and those reasonably asking: What are ramps, and what the heck is a ramp season?
Ramps are a wild onion that shows up briefly every spring and must be foraged. For the food-obsessed on the East Coast, “ramp season” has now become an annual frenzy. The combination of the rare, limited availability of these little alliums and the brief window in which they’re available makes them highly coveted among the type of people who obsess about their produce.
The recent obsession with ramps has also driven up demand, making them expensive Prices can sometimes run up to as much as $20 a pound. This has raised concerns about overharvesting and sustainability of the plant, and worries that even with such high prices, little of that money makes it back to the rural communities that supply ramps.
Ramp mania in affluent cities has also become something of a class marker. Talking about “ramps season” these days is a way to show taste and sophistication, to signal to people that you care about locally sourced produce and knowing where your food comes from. Ramp-obsessed urbanites have turned what was once a relatively obscure allium most popular in the Appalachian region into something that bougie New Yorkers hunt down at restaurants and farmers markets every April.
Here’s what you need to know about this little plant that drives some food-obsessed East Coast residents into a frenzy every spring — and the costs of this obsession.
What are ramps, and what is the big deal about them?
Ramps, also sometimes called wild leeks, are a type of wild onion, and they look similar to a scallion or spring onion — they have a bulb and a tall stalk and long, flat green leaves on top. They have a strong flavor that can taste like a cross between an onion and garlic. They’re often served grilled or sautéed, or incorporated into pasta dishes, turned into vinaigrette, pesto, or butter; they can also be pickled and saved for later in the year.
There are a few reasons there’s so much fuss about ramps compared to other spring produce, and they largely add up to exclusivity. One reason is that ramps aren’t farmed — they’re wild, so they can only be acquired through foraging. This means supply is much more limited than other related alliums like scallions or leeks, which are more widely available since farmers can grow them in mass quantities. (There are some growing movements to try to cultivate ramps, but they haven’t gotten a lot of traction yet.)
The second reason ramps are so exclusive is that they’re in season for a very brief period before they disappear again, typically from mid-April to early May, which only adds to their allure. This means they’re available at grocery stores and farmers markets for just a short window every spring, which can lead to shoppers sometimes fighting to get the last bunch.
Ramps thrive in Appalachia and are a big part of local food culture in the region
Ramps grow all over the eastern US and Canada, and are especially prevalent in West Virginia and the Appalachian region.
“In West Virginia, [ramps] are a prominent part of local foraging practices, collectively shared knowledge and stewardship of the land, and the centerpiece of springtime community gatherings — often intended to draw both locals and tourists as fundraisers for schools and community organizations,” said Emily Hilliard, the state folklorist of West Virginia. Many towns have been holding these community dinners and festivals celebrating ramps for nearly a century; the town of Richwood, West Virginia, which calls itself the “ramp capital of the world,” is holding its 82nd annual Feast of the Ramson (another name for ramps) this month. In 1930, a West Virginia man was dubbed the “King of Ramps” because he was reportedly able to forage ramps faster than anyone else in town.
Wild Ramps from Rick Bishop at Mountain Sweet Berry Farm. | We preserve the bottoms and often use the green tops for sautéing or making a nice flavorful oil. #purveyors #nyc pic.twitter.com/ibTkLkSK9W
— Per Se (@PerSeNY) July 26, 2019
Mike Costello, a chef and farmer who runs Lost Creek Farm in West Virginia with his partner Amy Dawson, said that the local ramp dinners play a big role in building community in rural Appalachian towns. “This might be one of a couple community events they have each year. So it’s one of the only times people in rural communities can get together and enjoy this fellowship,” he told Vox. The dinners can also provide financial support for the town, he added: “Sometimes you might have a town that has a ramp dinner every year and that dinner is the fundraiser that helps them pay their municipal electric bill every year. There’s a history and heritage that people celebrate with the act of foraging and going to the woods to gather the things to prepare for the summer.”
Costello also says that one of the reasons ramps are so celebrated in Appalachian communities is because they signal the arrival of springtime. “There’s so much wrapped up in what it means to change seasons. Especially with spring, there’s this shift out of the winter months, the cold grayness, there’s this greenery and it’s sort of like a little taste of what’s to come, so it’s a cause for celebration,” Costello said. “That’s part of what people here in this region see out of ramps, and why ramps have more cultural significance in this place than others. … There’s more of a connection to the land, and those cycles are very significant for us.”
How ramps went from Appalachian staple to fine-dining restaurant menus
Outside of Appalachia and other regions where ramps grow, this allium was still a pretty obscure ingredient until the past couple of decades, after which it quickly went from an Appalachian food tradition to something that chefs at Michelin-starred restaurants work into their menus every spring.
In New York, farmer Rick Bishop is often credited with being one of the early farmers market pioneers who brought ramp mania to cities. Bishop runs Mountain Sweet Berry Farm in upstate New York, and has a stand at the popular Union Square Greenmarket in Manhattan. Bishop is known for foraging wild foods growing in the Catskills — especially ramps — and he supplies his ramps to some of New York’s top restaurants, including Per Se, David Chang’s Momofuku restaurants, and Gramercy Tavern. Food websites like Eater and Grub Street (both our sister websites at Vox Media) often report each year on when Bishop’s ramps have arrived at farmers markets in New York. Soon after, like clockwork, ramp dishes start showing up on local restaurant menus.
Grub Street reported in 2013 that ramps started to really become a part of New York restaurant culture around 1996; this was the first year ramp dishes became a popular mainstay on many menus, including “ramps vinaigrette at Capsouto Freres; ramps with morels and spaetzle at Peter Hoffman’s Savoy; spaghetti with ramps and pecorino at Mario Batali’s Pó; and ramps galore at Gramercy Tavern, where Tom Colicchio served sautéed sweetbreads with morels and ramps, as well as cod with fondue of ramps and bacon.”
Recently, after having a dish with ramps at LaLou, a wine bar in my neighborhood in Brooklyn, I emailed the chef, Jay Wolman, to ask: Why are people obsessed with ramps?
“I think ramps deserve all the hype and fascination associated with them,” Wolman replied. “I think it’s the allure of something you cannot replicate or cultivate, they have to be searched and foraged for. Anything that requires that sort of effort comes with a good story, and when you know the story of where the food comes from, it always tastes better.”
Ilene Rosen, co-owner of R&D Foods, a specialty grocer and cafe in Brooklyn, and the author of Saladish: A Crunchier, Grainier, Herbier, Heartier, Tastier Way With Vegetables, also loves ramps. “For me, it is their early arrival that fuels my anticipation for all spring produce,” Rosen said. She shared Costello’s sentiment that part of the hype about ramps’ arrival is because they’re one of the first spring vegetables to hit markets each year, and serve as a sign of the changing of seasons, a way to mark the end of a long, dreary winter.
And Costello, who grew up surrounded by community ramp dinners, remarked: “To me, it’s kind of funny being here in West Virginia and seeing this phenomenon.” When he was growing up, “there was no reason to expect they would have ended up on fine dining menus; that would have been totally absurd for me to think of when I was 16 and first wanted to be a chef. Because at that time Appalachian food wasn’t trendy at all, it was kind of something people were actively trying to separate themselves from, so it’s been funny to witness this trend.”
The skyrocketing demand for ramps has raised concerns, too
Demand for ramps has grown so much in recent years that some botanists are concerned about overharvesting and sustainability of the plant. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park banned ramp harvesting in 2004, and in Canada, Quebec made it entirely illegal since the plant is considered endangered — which then led to a black market of ramp smuggling.
Costello also has deep concerns about overharvesting. “As foragers and people connected to the land, we have to see ourselves in community with those plants that sustain us. We have a responsibility to not only sustainably harvest them but to teach others to sustainably harvest and make sure that’s part of that body of knowledge that gets passed forward,” Costello said.
There is a growing movement of people advocating for more sustainable methods of harvesting ramps. The Cherokee have been foraging ramps for centuries, and they recommend cutting off only the tops of the plants and leaving the roots still growing, instead of pulling out the entire plant. And Bishop told the New York Times that he makes sure not to hit the same patch of ramps more than once every five years and rotates foraging from different areas, so the plants have time to recover.
Costello also pointed out that while many ramps come from West Virginia, rural communities that supply ramps to the rest of the US might not be seeing the financial benefits of the ramp craze.
Consumers should think more about “what your social responsibility is to communities that are providing these resources to you,” Costello said. “This is the thing restaurants in DC or other places don’t necessarily think about. They’re getting ramps they might pay $10 wholesale for; the person who dug those ramps probably only gets $1 or $2 a pound for it. That’s not enough money to make sure that the time is invested to sustainably harvest those ramps. I remember in DC, at [a grocery store], seeing ramps for $25 a pound. But whoever dug those ramps is probably not seeing that cash.”
So do ramps even taste good?
Honestly? As a person who cares a lot about food, I have a controversial opinion on this: I think ramps are a touch overrated. Hear me out! Eating whole grilled or sautéed ramps is just not that enjoyable because the flavor is so strong. Melted leeks are sweeter and richer in flavor, while scallions provide a nice crunch and sharp flavor for garnishing a dish.
In most cultures, onions and other alliums are generally used as a component of a dish, not the main attraction. Garlic, onions, leeks, scallions, chives, shallots, because of their strong, sharp flavor when raw, are most often chopped, diced, minced, and then sautéed or otherwise cooked or worked into the base of the dish, as a building block that adds flavor. Most recipes don’t typically center onions or garlic as the star of a meal — they’re more like a supporting actor.
But during ramps season, ramps are often treated as the main attraction. Because they’re so rare, chefs and home cooks get excited when they arrive each year and then bend over backward trying to find ways to prepare and serve them, when in many cases a dish could be better served by leeks or scallions or chives for flavor. The rarity of this foraged food might make ramps feel more exciting, but unfortunately, in my opinion, it does not make them taste better.
That’s not to say ramps are bad; I think they just might be a tad overhyped in some circles. And that hype has raised ethical concerns, too — when many Americans are struggling to access and afford healthy food, ramps are an obsession of the bougie and affluent, those who can afford a vegetable that runs at $20 a pound. And many of the wealthy shoppers buying up ramps in cities likely give very little thought to how much their ramp obsession might drive overharvesting of the plant, or how much of that $20 goes back to workers and communities that supply them at low prices.
But by all means, if you want to try ramps, I’m not here to discourage you. When shopping at farmers markets or dining at restaurants, it’s worth looking for ramps that have been harvested sustainably. And if you’re buying them yourself, consider buying them in small quantities rather than buying tons, so that you don’t contribute to the problem of overharvesting.
And if you haven’t had a chance to get in on this year’s ramps season, don’t worry — there’s always next year.
Author: Nisha Chittal