It Reeks But It Rocks: Peninsula Celebrates the Smelly but Tasty Ramp
Every year, Peninsula holds a festival to welcome the arrival of ramps. They’re a native species that smells like garlic and tastes like onions, and they’re highly prized by country folk and chefs alike. But the “little stinkers,” as they’re known in the Cuyahoga Valley, aren’t easy to find as WKSU’s Vivian Goodman reports in today’s Quick Bite.
“Want to ride the rest of the way?”
The weather’s fine, but it’s a bit of a walk down Riverview Road from the parking lot. So Nancy Rhodes rides the packed shuttle bus to Ramp Up Peninsula.
“It’s a hometown kind of festival.”
Not her hometown, though; she comes in every spring from Akron hankering for ramps.
“They’re tasty and interesting. I’m looking forward to having a, what do they call them? Stinking Mary’s or something like that -- a Bloody Mary drink that’s kind of fun.”
Reeking of ramps
All the food here and most of the drinks put out a very strong odor. Fifteen vendors are on the grounds of family-owned Heritage Farms, host for the annual festival organized by the Peninsula Chamber of Commerce.
Ramps are in everything from pierogis to chocolate candy.
Elaine of Byers Concessions puts them in her polenta, her cheese sauce for fries, and she mixes them in with peppers for Philly steaks.
“The polenta has the ramps, some green onion, parmesan cheese, a little butter, a little cream. Why not?”
Fresh and local
But why such a clamor lately for ramps?
'How sustainable is it if we were to all go out and try to find food in the woods? I struggle with that a lot.'
“People are into local, fresh, organic food and you can’t get more fresh, local, and organic than something you find growing out in the woods.”
That’s Don King. He calls himself “the Mushroom Hunter.”
“I love experimenting with the different textures and tastes and everything that comes with wild edibles that are so different from things you find in the grocery store"
He’s a Kent State art professor who forages as a sideline and conducts nature walks every year at Ramp Up Peninsula.
Marguerita Benitez came from Canton in search of ramps.
“It’s an interesting mixture of flavor between garlic and onions, leeks maybe, and it’s unique, and I love the fact that it’s something local. And that’s why I’m here to see how we can hunt for them.”
On the hunt for little stinkers
A small group follows King into the woods behind the festival grounds.
“We might find some interesting things today, so let’s take a little hike.”
King will point out other wild edibles but what he’s really looking for is Allium Tricoccum, also known as ramp, spring onion, wild garlic and wild leek.
Marcus Vogl of Canton is coming along on the hike. He’s a home cook who loves ramps.
“It’s actually wonderful in a little light mayonnaise as an aioli. It works really well for example on your sandwiches or with a little chicken."
There are other reasons to try them. Ramps are a good source of Vitamin C. Cherokee, Iroquois and Ojibwa tribes use them in spring tonics as well as traditional dishes.
Part of the lily family, ramps are found all over the eastern half of the United States, but not easily.
“We have about two or three weeks in most areas where the entire ramp is edible. After that the leaves start to die off. They can still be harvested, but you can pretty much only eat the bulb at that point.”
We have our eyes peeled for broad, smooth, deep green leaves about 5 inches long tapering to a thin reddish-purple stalk that looks like a scallion.
“They like to be on hillsides near creeks and rivers. Sometimes that’s the only thing growing there. I’ve been in areas where it’s a field of ramps. The entire forest floor is covered with them
Not a whiff
Not this area, though. Not today.
“We have the right soil. We have the right sort of trees growing around in the right habitat. So I’m a little surprised we haven’t found something yet.”
Can’t forage everywhere
We’re foraging as guests today on private land here at Heritage Farms. Ramps may be growing nearby, but we can’t harvest them.
“State parks, Metroparks, the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, actual taking of the plant or any part of the plant is usually not allowed.”
In Quebec, the ramp is listed as a “vulnerable species.” In 1995 foraging for commercial purposes had to be banned.
You can be fined $500 for taking more than 50 plants in Quebec. Ramp foraging is banned, too, in parts of North Carolina and Tennessee.
French explorers, who found ramps growing in profusion along Lake Michigan named Chicago after the native word for ramps, which also means skunk. They grow wild from South Carolina to Canada, and in Northeast Ohio, you might find them in your backyard.
Don King worries about the sustainability of one of his favorite foods because of over-harvesting. He’s glad the wild food is popular, but he sees a downside to the ramp craze.
“How sustainable is it if we were to all go out and try to find food in the woods? I struggle with that a lot. Because I’m trying to teach people how to do this. But at the same time I want to make sure that they understand about the sustainability.”
"Soon they might actually be considered an endangered or a threatened species.”
Other wild edibles
As we trudge along, King finds other food sources.
“How many people have ever eaten dandelion greens or flowers? OK, so several people. The roots can be used as well.”
The dandelion flower tastes grassy, but slightly sweet.
We hike a little farther and find something else to munch on, maybe.
“It’s called purple dead nettle. It’s edible. Let’s just leave it at that. It’s sort of fuzzy.”
The “little stinker” remains elusive. Not even a whiff. But King is confident we’ll soon smell the pungent odor of ramps.
“Walking near them, you smell the onion. And the great thing about ramps and other wild onions and wild garlic is that there is nothing out there, especially in our region, that is inedible that has that smell.”
Ramps are among the first wild vegetables to poke up in the spring, but maybe we’re too early. King is surprised, too, to see no ostrich fiddle-head ferns.
“It’s really kind of odd here that they’re not even really coming up yet.”
The forager says he often comes home empty-handed.
“For me it’s like fishing, right? You’re going out. You’re enjoying the outside, and hopefully as a bonus you come home with something for dinner.”
It’s clear now we won’t be coming home with fresh ramps, unless we buy them for $15 a pound from one of the festival vendors. But as we walk back to the fairgrounds we begin to smell clearly that appetites stimulated by the hike will be easily satisfied.
“That’s what’s so exciting about festivals like these and people and chefs and restaurants that are rediscovering these great local, wild foods is it's pushing the food in new directions of new and exciting dishes."
Aioli, pierogis and more
On a porchetta sandwich, Chef James Redford of Cleveland’s Spice Kitchen and Bar is serving aioli made with ramps that grow wild at Spice Acres, the restaurant’s farm in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park.
“The leaves have been blanched and made into a puree, and then we take the ramp bulbs and poach them in oil and get them nice and soft, and then put that in there as well.”
Hartville’s Pierogi Lady never misses the ramp festival.
It "brings out the hillbilly side of me and the Polish side of me since we make pierogis.”
Four kinds today.
“Potato ramp, potato bacon ramp, chorizo and cheese and ramp, and bacon, egg and cheese and ramp.”
There’s Charly Murphy of Stray Dog Carts topping hot dogs.
“We have a ramp relish that we do every year. We’re doing a ramp pesto over meatballs, and we have a French ramp soup today, and we have a ramp mac and cheese.”
Ramp candy is dandy
For dessert, Mary King and Mike Swisher choose a ramp-filled sweet treat.
“It’s a little truffle that has salted dried ramps mixed in with some pistachio nuts and are coated on the outside of the truffle,” says King.
“This is probably the best thing I’ve had here so far,” says Swisher. “I’m a chef. I play with ramps every day. It’s my favorite thing and I’ve never thought to put it in a chocolate in my life.”
Swisher put ramp pesto and ramps fried in tempura batter on the menu earlier this spring at Portage Country Club.
Ephemeral and tasty
And forager Don King understands why. It’s the romance of the ramp.
“Partially it’s because they’re so ephemeral. We have these couple of weeks in the spring where they’re easy to spot, they’re easy to identify, and then they’re gone. That’s part of it, but also they just taste amazing.”
He acknowledges not everyone’s as big a fan of ramps as he is.
“They’re so strong that it’s almost a badge of honor to eat these things and to survive.”
Bill Derrick of Akron wears the badge proudly. He calls himself “a country guy.”
"You can sit down and eat a bunch of them. But if you eat 10 you’re hurting the next day."