Friday, June 2, 2017

Those trendy ramps are rooted in Appalachia

Ramp O Rama Dinner

Here's a column I wrote for the Charleston Gazette-Mail about how important I think it is that we reclaim Appalachian cuisine:

A simple, garlicky green growing wild in Appalachia has made its way to kitchens in New York City, Chicago and Los Angeles.

The ramp, with its bright green leaves descending into a deep red stem and culminating in a slender white bulb, has been a pungent mountain secret for decades — home cooks and local restaurants alike paying homage to the spring treat.

In recent years, the ramp has been elevated in prominent culinary circles that have praised the incorporation of the leek as innovative and groundbreaking — often at the expense of Appalachian cooks and chefs who pioneered its use and put the ramp on the map.

Appalachian cuisine has very humble roots, and as this style of cooking becomes more trendy, it’s important to take ownership of our foodways.

Empower our local food systems. Reclaim our narrative. Make the Appalachian voice heard.

Ramp O Rama Dinner

On one hand, it’s great the region is getting noticed for its culinary ability and for the diverse, inventive food created here. On the other, plucking ingredients or ideas from Appalachia to make a dish elsewhere strips the context from that food and the stories behind those meals. The result is a shallow facsimile void of the complex history and sense of place that makes up Appalachian food.

Take that ramp for example. We lovingly create authentic meals that recognize its place in our culture and as part of our narrative. From ramp feeds to haute cuisine, in West Virginia we celebrate the Allium tricoccum myriad ways.

Richwood is the self-proclaimed Ramp Capital of the World. Here, you can sit down for the Feast of the Ramson for the true, utilitarian meal that highlights the ramp: cooked ramps, ham, bacon, potatoes, brown beans, cornbread, dessert and sassafras tea.

It’s a simple meal that is hearty, filling and uses local ingredients. It draws on historical roots and carries on our tradition.

Then, take Hill & Hollow’s Ramp-A-Rama beer pairing dinner held at the end of April. It drew on inspiration from our lands and melded it with a modern interpretation.

The Morgantown restaurant featured ramp and camel albondigas in a smoked banana barbecue for its first course (paired with Greenbrier Valley Brewing Co.’s Devil Anse IPA). The second course featured Cape Cod littleneck clams steamed in ale with pancetta, cannelloni beans and ramps (paired with Chestnut Brew Works’ Halleck Pale Ale). The third was lemongrass-smoked Gardner farms spareribs with ramp-mango mojo (paired with Big Timber Brewing Company’s Robber Baron Rye IPA). And, finally, dessert was a ramp-Meyer lemon sorbet with mint-anchovy granite (paired with North End Tavern’s Roedy’s Red).

West Virginians do both: the filling, utilitarian meals and the inspired, imaginative dishes that illustrate the power of Appalachian ingredients. And, of course, everything in between.

But the essence of the food remains the same: It pays tribute to our foraging past and respects the integrity of the ingredients. That is what helps tell our story.

And, that ramp. The wild onion is small — but mighty — and has opened the door for other Appalachian ingredients to shine.

So let’s celebrate others recognizing what we’ve always seen in the ramp, all the while crediting the folks who forged that path so we can all enjoy that little stinker.

Candace Nelson is a marketing professional living in Morgantown. In her free time, Nelson blogs about Appalachian food culture at CandaceLately.com. Follow @Candace07 on Twitter or email Candace127@gmail.com.

Crispy Brussels Sprouts with Ramps, Bacon & Morels
Scott Jones, a native of Richwood, who now lives in Huntington, shared a recipe for Crispy Brussels Sprouts with Ramps, Bacon & Morels he crafted from his hometown’s delicacy:

“The most traditional — and best — way to fix up a mess of ramps is to fry up a bunch of bacon (thin-cut works better than thick) low ‘n slow in a cast-iron skillet, set the bacon aside and fry (well, saute) ramps, cleaned and chopped, into 2- to 3-inch segments ‘til they’re the desired texture. That said, when we bring back a few pounds from Richwood, we try to incorporate them into our family meals. They are similar to shallots, so they are great roasted with veggies.”

1 pound Brussels sprouts, cleaned and halved

5 ramps, cleaned and diced

4 strips of bacon, cooked and crumbled (optional)

1/2 tablespoon rendered bacon fat

1 1/2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil (2 tablespoons if you leave out bacon fat)

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

4 ounces morel mushrooms (or whatever are available)

1/8 teaspoon fresh ground pepper

1/2 lemon

Toss all ingredients except for the lemon and crumbled bacon.

Roast on a baking sheet at 400 degrees for 20 to 30 minutes.

Turn over every 10 minutes.

Remove from oven, squeeze lemon half over the dish and toss.

Top with bacon crumbles if desired.