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The Foodie Craze Over This Wild Onion Is Killing It

This is The Digest, a new FiveThirtyEight column exploring the science, history and economics of food. This week’s Digest is all about ramps and the many ways to think about sustainability. First course: Is it possible to prevent overzealous harvesters from depleting our caches of ramps for years to come? Second course: How an effort to save ramps reveals a bias in scientific knowledge. Third course: How ramp festivals offer a different kind of sustainability.

Primo:

Ramps — vegetables that belong to the “allium” family, along with garlic, onions, leeks and chives — combine the juicy bite of a green onion with the cloying pungency of raw garlic. They have long been prized across Appalachia, where numerous festivals are dedicated to them during the 10 to 12 weeks they grow in early spring.

In the 1980s, ramps began to capture the heart of city dwellers as well. As one of the first edible plants available in spring’s thaw, and only for a limited time, they have gained near-mythical status. That they’re mainly foraged in the wild, and not cultivated on farms, doesn’t hurt the mystique.

In the food world, too much attention can be a bad thing. For several years now, there have been reports that the booming popularity of ramps is endangering the plant’s future. It’s hard to say how much damage has been done — counting plants that grow in the wild, particularly plants that favor out of the way locales, is a difficult task. And ramps grow from as far south as Tennessee, up into Canada, and as far west as Minnesota. But many foragers say they are seeing shrinkage in patches they’ve gone to for years, and it’s likely that the insatiable demand and high prices that ramps fetch in big cities mean many foragers will harvest as many as they can.

Jim Chamberlain, a research scientist with the U.S. Forest Service, has been researching ramps for the past 15 or 16 years. Although nearly all the ramps we eat grow in the wild, he’s found that they aren’t that difficult to cultivate in moist, rich soil with enough sunlight (he has several plots of them growing in store-bought potting soil in his yard in Blacksburg, Virginia). Still, because a seed takes an average of three to seven years to become an edible plant, commercial cultivation is an unlikely endeavor, even if we do figure out the agronomy.

Chamberlain doesn’t think we should be encouraging cultivation of ramps anyway. Instead, he’d like to help foragers adjust their practices and traditions to be more sustainable.

His current research is in essence a kind of ramp limbo — how low can you go when cutting the bulb without damaging the plant. Ramps can grow from seeds but can also grow from rhizomes, an underground plant stem that sprouts bulbs and roots. Multiple bulbs can grow off of this subterranean stem. Many foragers dig up the whole plant (photos from the Union Square Greenmarket in New York City, for example, show roots attached to all the bulbs), but cutting the plants at the bulb, leaving the rhizome and roots in the ground, should allow the plants to keep growing. Chamberlain hopes finding that sweet spot will let foragers walk away with a good amount of edible biomass without killing the plant.1 He’s not yet sure how he’ll go about convincing chefs and consumers, who have shown preference for having the roots intact, that they are better off without them.

Secondo:

The Cherokee have been in Appalachia for centuries, and the Eastern Band currently resides on a 56,000-acre swath of land in North Carolina that it purchased in the 1800s and that abuts Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Cherokee have long consumed ramps, but when they harvest, they cut the ramp at what they call its britches, the place in the middle of the bulb where pulling apart the plant becomes difficult, leaving some of the bulb and the regenerating parts in the ground. They say they harvest only about 10 percent of any given patch in a year.

A five-year experiment conducted in Great Smoky Mountains National Park by researchers from the park and University of Tennessee found that to harvest ramps sustainably, one would need to remove 10 percent or less once every 10 years. The study became a basis for enforcing a ban on foraging ramps in the park, including for Cherokee families that say they’d visited some patches for generations. In March of 2009, George Burgess, a citizen of the Cherokee nation, was issued a citation for foraging on park land.

Courtney Lewis, an assistant professor of anthropology and Southern studies at the University of South Carolina and a citizen of the Cherokee nation, attended the subsequent trial. As she later pointed out in an article published in the academic journal Southern Cultures, the ban on ramp harvesting and the trial put on display a recurring problem for indigenous communities: a lack of regard for their scientific knowledge. The researchers testified in court that they hadn’t studied the foraging methods used by the Cherokee, who say they know how to sustain ramps — they’ve been doing it successfully for generations. “Western knowledge dismisses oral traditions, which is very dangerous because they aren’t oral traditions, they are oral knowledge,” Lewis told me recently by phone. A big problem with Western science and academia, Lewis said, is that if something isn’t written down, then it isn’t considered knowledge. “But of course, the only people writing it down are Western colonialists.”

Burgess was ultimately found guilty — he readily admitted to the crime — but, according to Lewis, the judge gave him the smallest penalty possible, a $50 fine. The Eastern Band is still negotiating with the federal government to allow harvesting of plants for traditional reasons. The cooperative extension service of the Eastern Band, a community outreach program of two North Carolina universities, has been helping families grow backyard plots of ramps, and the tribe has taken to paying members for their ramps so that it can hold its annual Rainbows and Ramps Festival.

Contorno:

On a recent sunny, Sunday afternoon, a crowd gathered on the side of Virginia’s second-highest peak, Whitetop Mountain. Unseasonably frigid weather had pared the crowd down from the 4,000 to 5,000 who typically attended the annual Mt. Rogers Volunteer Fire Department and Rescue Squad ramp festival, although close to 2,000 had shown up throughout the day, said James Howard Hayes, a volunteer firefighter and emergency medical technician since 1990.

The dozens of ramp festivals in this region are often community fundraisers, and by Hayes’s estimates, this one would bring in enough money to fund about 30 percent of the all-volunteer rescue squad’s annual budget.

The main event of the festival was its finale: a ramp-eating contest. Just two contestants showed up for the youth competition; participants would have one minute to consume as many ramp bulbs as they could. Five-year-old Hattie Galvert from nearby Konnarock planned to eat two but polished off double that. Still, she was no match for Austin Hart of Big Windfall, North Carolina, who ate 17 and won the contest for the third year in a row, taking home $35 and a large bottle of mouthwash.

The adults were up next. An announcer in a ten-gallon hat reminded contestants of the rules: The contest would last three minutes, there was $100 waiting for the winner, and upchucking would get you disqualified.

The competition looked stiff: Chris Moncus, who said his strategy was to eat six at a time, claimed he’d once eaten 57 in one sitting. There were rumors that Whitetop local Bernie Greer had eaten 48 the year before. Lisa Randolph and her boyfriend, Daniel Roten, uncle to youth winner Austin Hart, were both competing for the first time. “What a date,” Daniel’s sister Jennifer commented as the contestants took their marks to gobble up the potent, garlicky plants.

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With Trenton Diehl and Randolph tied for third place, the judges gave them the option of a one-minute eat-off. Diehl looked at Randolph. “She can have the T-shirt,” he told the judges. He’d had enough ramps for one day.


We’re still working out the essential ingredients to make this column just right — we welcome your feedback and suggestions! You can email me, leave a note in the comments, or find me on Twitter.

Footnotes

  1. There’s a movement in New York to try to convince foragers not to take any of the bulb. Although the greens are edible and delicious (and make up about 35 percent of the plant’s biomass, according to Chamberlain), the bulb is the part most people are interested in, making it unlikely that consumers will readily switch to using only the leafy greens. Chamberlain’s research is essentially looking for a happy medium between removing the whole plant and removing just the greens.

Anna Maria Barry-Jester reports on public health, food and culture for FiveThirtyEight.

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