All for the love of Appalachia's stinky onion
The ramp, a wild onion savored by foodies, is now in season. But overharvesting means the pickin's are getting slimmer.
Nestled between the ferns here on Whitetop Mountain (5,520 feet) is an Appalachian delicacy known as the "stinky mountain onion" or ramp. It's a veggie with a storied past and nose-gripping appeal for foodies.
For mountain folks like Kevin Sulins, who emerges from a trout stream near Whitetop Mountain with a full string of rainbows for Saturday supper, supplementing meager incomes by hunting game as well as gathering ramps and other crops on public lands goes back generations.
"We like to pick ramps every year," says the career handyman. "They taste real good."
The Appalachian ramp has had growing appeal over the past decade - from dozens of humble hill festivals at the season's high point in mid-April until the end of May to the best tables at the famous Greenbrier hotel in West Virginia to well-known chefs.
This spring for the first time, botanists in North Carolina are taking the wild seeds and replicating the soils for commercial cultivation of the ramp.
"Part of our strategy with the ramps is to develop crops that are specific to the mountains so they can't be taken away from us," says Beverly Whitehead, of the Smoky Mountain Native Plants Association in Robbinsville, N.C.
The ramp is named after the early British word "ramson," or son of Ram, the spring buck, which represents the months of March and April. That's when the wild onion first pokes up from the forest floor. The veggie once nourished native Americans, and provided a Vitamin C blast that protected Appalachian settlers from disease, says Jeanine Davis, associate professor of horticulture and a ramp expert at North Carolina State University (NCSU). It was also the bane of one-room school teachers in May, when students reeked of its strong onion-and-garlic smell.
People who live in these parts hope that the ramp can help fill the revenue gap since burley tobacco - the major Appalachian cash crop in the 20th century - is on the way out as with smoking in restaurants. But it's a tall order: A ramp only grows in elevations above 3,000 feet, and takes seven years to mature.
To prevent harvesting too many of the slow-growing plants, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina has banned ramp picking since 2002, and the Cherokee National Forest on the Tennessee-North Carolina border now requires permits for pickers.
"All of a sudden we're harvesting more than the plant can replenish itself in the woods," says Ms. Davis.
In the past couple years, the gourmet delicacy has become popular with TV foodies such as Martha Stewart, Emeril Lagasse, and Mario Batali. For chefs, the ramp is used in place of onions, garlic, or shallots for everything from fish dishes to cornbread. Still nearly impossible to find in grocery stores in Appalachia or elsewhere, here the ramp always inspires lore.
"Ramps are one of the first green things to sprout out of the mountains, and folks who had been eating salt pork all winter really went for it," says Sam Venable, an Appalachia observer and Knoxville News-Sentinel outdoor columnist in Tennessee. "Now just the opposite's happened, and it's really taken off across the country. They should have bumper stickers: 'I ate ramps before they were cool.' "
They sell for as much as $5 a bunch, up from $1.50 a bunch 10 years ago.
NCSU just picked its first-ever crop of cultivated ramps. Some predict that a mix of commercial cultivation and careful woodland picking - cutting the root stump off at the base allows the plant to flourish the next spring - could be the future of ramp production.
Yet a debate is brewing about whether such wild harvests should be allowed, or forests should be off limits.
"We have some conservationists that just want to ban people from the forest, but when you get out and study it you realize gathering ramps is what a grandfather and a grandson do on a Sunday afternoon," says Davis.