Through The Lens: Ramps and Dandelion Salad
Before a couple weeks ago, I figured if I heard the term, social distancing, it was because it is ramp season. Social distancing is a necessary measure to avoid those who eat the pungent smelling plant raw and in an overabundance. Now to be clear, ramps do have an enjoyable flavor if cooked or eaten in moderation. The problem comes when those who enjoy them eat far more than those around them. Add in close quarters and the need for social distancing becomes quickly apparent.
Many years ago in the lunchroom where I worked, spring time often brought a strain in social relationships between workers. One group each year, brought ramps to work to eat during the day. These lovers of the strong smelling plant sometimes consumed them in large amounts. Later, when they went out to work in a very warm environment, they began to perspire profusely. Odor from the human body is unpleasant enough, but when added to a person who ate an abundance of ramps, that’s a game changer. The more they sweat, the more the pungent odor is emitted from their pours. Pretty soon they smell similar to a walking ramp.
Now, if you are a person who doesn’t care for ramps and you have to share a room with a person who enjoys them, it can lead to some strong discussions concerning a person’s heritage and rights. Fortunately, most of those conversations were no more than one person’s expression of their rights not to smell them, verses those who believed they have every right to eat whatever they want. Luckily, ramp season is short lived and the heritage question soon passed.
Here in West Virginia, ramps can be found in local woods growing in patches. They can be easily unearthed, if you know what you are looking for. Tall thin green leafed plants growing in clusters. It is not unusual at this time of year to see someone along the road selling ramps by the bunch. Locally they are not too expensive. But, in big cities where ramps can only be found in special markets, they may go for as much as twenty dollars a pound.
It is said in some areas around the country, patches of wild ramps are diminishing because of over harvesting. A seasoned ramp hunter realizes it is important to use common sense when digging a patch of ramps. They only harvest enough for their use, but leave enough to continue the growth of the patch of ramps for another season.
Over forty years ago, Mike Batton gave me a dozen ramps. Instead of eating them, I started a patch growing near where Mary and I lived years ago. I planted the ramp bulbs in a nearby shady woods. After many years, the patch has begun to spread. From that original handful, there are now a couple hundred plants. The slow rate at which those few plants spread, tells me a wild patch that is over harvested will take a very long time to return.
This is also the time of year that dandelion leaves can be harvested for eating. A fresh bowl of dandelion greens plus a couple ramps and you have a great wild salad. I’ll bet if you were to go to a fancy restaurant in New York and order a dandelion salad with ramps you would be unpleasantly surprised at its cost. But, around here, a walk in the woods to find some ramps and a stroll through a field where dandelions are appearing gives you the opportunity to create your own salad. By the way, make sure dogs don’t visit the field on their daily walk.
If you go online and look for recipes for dandelion salad, you will find a variety ranging from just a dish of fresh dandelion leaves with vinegar and oil, to an elaborate salad made with everything including French truffles.
Mary’s mom was the Euell Gibbons of the family. Every spring, she would take her basket and head off to the woods to harvest a variety of plants to be part of the family’s evening meal. Ramps, dandelion, lambs’ quarters, water crest, nettle greens, and mushrooms were often harvested. The mushrooms are and interesting part of her adventure. Mary tells of the time her mother decided to go looking for edible mushrooms. She went to her World Book encyclopedia and found pictures of edible mushrooms. With book in the basket on her arm, she ventured into the deep woods in search of edible fungus. Whether it was her knowing which were edible or the pictures in the encyclopedia, she returned with a crop of the fungus delicacy. By the way, for those of you who are younger and don’t know what an encyclopedia is, just think of it as a hard copy of Google.
On my side of the family, spring dandelion season meant my dad was going to take a different approach to the yellow flowering plant. With his homemade dandelion extractor, he would go in search of new plants popping up in the yard. As hard as he tried, he never was totally successful in removing all of them with his tool. As quickly as he extracted one, a seed would float in from the neighbor’s yard and begin the cycle all over again. It was kind of a game between him and Mother Nature.
In this time of social distancing and with the weather getting better, I encourage you to go for a walk, look for nature’s bounty growing along the path. And if your backyard is turning yellow with dandelion flowers, hurry out and pick some before the leaves become to mature and bitter. Then at supper you can explain to your kids, eat your wild salad, its complements of Euell Gibbons as he once recommended it Through the Lens.