Tending the Commons: Folklife and Landscape in Southern West Virginia

Ramp Suppers, Biodiversity, and the Integrity of "The Mountains"

Crafting Locality

Historically, in these mountains, female sociality has flourished around the gathering and processing of greens and other wild produce. On the heels of ramps a host of other greens start popping up: dandelions, poke, shawnee lettuce, woolen britches, creasies, and lamb's tongue. And around these, women have fashioned womens' worlds. "That was the big deal when everybody used to go green picking," said Carrie Lou Jarrell, of Sylvester, on another occasion. "That was the event of the week. Mrs. Karen Thomas would come up and she always brought Jessie Graybill with her, and then Miss Haddad would come, and most of the time Maggie Wriston came with her. And usually Sylvia Williams was always there to do green picking with them. I knew from the time I came into the world that she was just a good friend. But that was the thrill of my life to get to go with all of these women, because they talked about good stuff."

Such talk is one means of crafting locality. It catches people up into a dense fabric of kinship and community and fastens that fabric to places and events in the mountains. Through such talk the women enunciate their place in the hills, a place remarkable not only for its biodiversity, but for the interweaving of biodiversity and community life. In the Ramp House the women laugh over how Violet Dickens once mistook sassafras tea for bacon grease and poured it over the frying ramps: "We need you to come season the ramps," Mabel kidded her the other day. They compare the aromas of poke and collard greens, and marvel at how window screens get black with flies when you're cooking them. They wonder where the creasies (dry land cress) are growing this year, and Jenny points out that creasies won't grow unless you till the soil.

In southern West Virginia a mixed mesophytic forest (known among ecologists as the world's most biologically diverse temperate-zone hardwood system) is not just a product of nature. It is integral to a cultural landscape that has taken shape over many generations. On Coal River, I have heard people say the best place to look for red mulberry trees, now in serious decline, is on farms; that the cows that grazed throughout the mountains well into the twentieth century kept the snake population down; and that Peach Tree Creek was named for peach trees encountered there by the first white settlers entering the region in the early 1800s. In the Ramp House they say you can start your own ramp patch from the bit of root they're chopping off at the ends.4 "Mabel has a few ramps growing in her yard," said Jenny. "I do, Edna does, and Sadie does. You don't, do you Theresa? You're going to have to plant you a patch of ramps and some molly moochers."

This week the molly moochers are coming in. Molly moochers are morel mushrooms. They say you can hear them popping up through the dried leaves when it rains. Old apple orchards, scattered throughout the woods where people used to live, make good places to go molly mooching. A neighbor found fifty-six today in an old apple orchard behind Laffon's house. "He found thirty-seven yesterday," said Laffon.

"Gladys was finding them out there," says another woman.

"Oh Gladys," Laffon chuckles."She's the queen of the molly moochers!"

The salient feature of ramps is the smell. The Menominee Indians called it "pikwute sikakushia": the skunk. "Shikako," their name for a large ramp patch that once flourished in northern Illinois, has been anglicized to Chicago: "the skunk place."5 Our chopping of leaves is filling the air with aromatic organosulphur compounds, characteristic of members of the allium family but carried to extremes in ramps and their consumers.6 Some have seen in this practice of restoring the body while emitting a sulphurous odor a rite of death and resurrection, serendipitously coinciding with Easter.7 Actually with ramps the motif appears to be breath and insurrection. Liberating organosulfides seems to comprise, if not a rite of inversion, at least a delicious form of backtalk: the country backtalking the city, the improper backtalking propriety. The efforts of official institutions to quell this annual olfactory uprising have been rehearsed at every ramp supper I've attended.


"Let me get this down so I can move on," said John Flynn at the 1995 Ramp Supper. "We did not eat ramps. There were very strong women in my family who did not like the odor. Also, if you ate ramps and went to school, they sent you home because of the odor. There were a lot of authoritarians in the school, so you didn't do a lot of ramp eating. Someone might get up the guts to do it once, but they didn't do it twice. The odor was the issue." Ways of annulling the odor creep into ramp talk.

"I like them raw," said Jess Duncan, of Sylvester, "like you'd eat a hot pepper or something with a sandwich."

"Fried potatoes, pinto beans," added Pat Canterbury.

"You can't beat them," said Jess, "and they don't stink if you don't eat very many of them."

"They do too," said Pat.

"If you eat them with a sandwich, they don't," Jess insisted. "My wife's never complained."

"Now, if you're confined close," cautioned Bob Daniel, of Dry Creek, one morning in Syble's Bed and Barn, "say in an office with people, I'm sure it would offend people like that, but in my line of work I don't think I bother anybody with them."

"If you don't like the smell," laughed Mae Bongalis, "go the other way. Stay at your house!"

The most famous official censure of ramps was brought on by the late Jim Comstock, editor of the West Virginia Hilbilly. Comstock, inspired by scratch-and-sniff advertising for perfume and coffee in several local papers, announced the Richwood Ramp Supper one year by lacing the printer's ink for his spring issue with ramp juice. "We got a reprimand from the Postmaster General," Comstock recalled. "And we are probably the only paper in the United States that's under oath to the federal government not to smell bad."8

Behind the powerful aroma it appears there really is something good for what ails you. Ramps have long been recommended for their germicidal and toning effects. The beliefs that ramps are good for the heart, that they thin and purify the blood and that they relieve the common cold are widespread.9 Scientific research suggests that such faith in ramps is well-placed. The allicin (diallylsulfide oxide) in ramps, which has antibiotic properties, has been linked with reduced rates of cancer.10 Ramps are higher in vitamin C than oranges.11 They contain cepaenes, which function as antithrombotic agents.12 Ramps also contain flavonoids and other antioxidants that are free-radical scavengers.13

As the first of the wild foods to appear, ramps satisfy the body's craving for living food at the end of a winter filled with produce that's been dried, canned, frozen, or shipped from faraway places. "They used to say," said Jenny Bonds, "that people that lived out like we did didn't live near grocery stores, so they said in the springtime you always need green things, like vegetables. So they said in the springtime the country people got ramps, that was our spring tonic."

"What does a spring tonic do?" I asked.

"Cure for spring fever, I guess," said Jenny.

"Strawberry rhubarb pie is my spring tonic," said Laffon Pettry.

Spring fever is twice cured by ramps, which lure people into the higher reaches of the mountains. "Ramps are fun to hunt," said John Flynn. "You can go out in the yard and get all the poke you want, but you have to go into the forest to look for ramps."

"The higher you go," said Woody Boggs on another occasion, "the more ramps and the bigger."


Candid portrait of a woman wearing glasses.
descriptive record icon enlarge image icon  Carrie Lou Jarrell, Sylvester, WV. Lyntha Scott Eiler. 1996/05/25. Library of Congress American Folklife Center.

A jar of ramps.
descriptive record icon enlarge image icon  [Detail] Ramps frozen by Vivian Jarrell. Lyntha Scott Eiler. 1996/04/11. Library of Congress American Folklife Center.

View of shelves filled with jars of preserved produce.
descriptive record icon enlarge image icon [Detail] Sadie Miller with produce from gardens and woods preserved in her basement pantry. Lyntha Scott Eiler. 1995/09/28. Library of Congress American Folklife Center.

A man holding a hoe.
descriptive record icon enlarge image icon  [Detail] Ben Burnside, digging ramps in the patch behind his home. Terry Eiler. 1995/04/21. Library of Congress American Folklife Center.

Detail view of a morel mushroom.
descriptive record icon enlarge image icon [Detail] Molly moocher. Mary Hufford. 1998/04/18. Library of Congress American Folklife Center.

A group of people sitting on a porch.
descriptive record icon enlarge image icon  Patrons on the ramp house porch (L-R): Mary Hufford, John Flynn, Mae Bongalis, Lois and Lloyd Burnside. Terry Eiler. 1995/04/22. Library of Congress American Folklife Center.