Tending the Commons: Folklife and Landscape in Southern West Virginia

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

Biodiversity has been protected through the flourishing of cultural diversity. Utilizing indigenous knowledge systems, cultures have built decentralized economies and production systems that use and reproduce biodiversity. Monocultures, by contrast, which are produced and reproduced through centralized control, consume biodiversity.1

The Ramp House on Drew's Creek

It is mid-April, and throughout the tributaries of West Virginia's Big Coal River, peepers are announcing spring. High in the hills, coves drained by chortling creeks are alight with the whites of trillium, the yellows of spice bush, the reds of wake robins, and the bright greens of ramps. From the valleys the bare woods appear spangled with the russet blooms of "hard" maples, the green-tinged yellows of "soft" maples, the white bursts of "sarvice" and dogwoods, and the deep pinks of "Judas trees." Soon, they say, the bass will be leaving the river and swimming up into the creeks to spawn.

I am sitting fairly high in the hills myself, paring knife in hand, in a modest rectangular building officially known as "The Ramp House." Perched as far up the hollow of Drew's Creek as a person can drive in a two-wheel drive car, the Ramp House faces the Delbert Free Will Baptist Church across a small parking lot. For more than forty years it has functioned as a community center, where women of the church hold weekly quilting bees, and families assemble for reunions. But its name registers its most public and celebrated purpose: sheltering friends, neighbors, and kin who come together each spring to feast upon ramps.

Ramps, allium tricoccum, are wild leeks. Thriving throughout the Appalachian range in rich, dark woodlands near mountain streams, ramps are among the first edible foods to appear in the early spring, when they pierce the gray and brown leaf mold with a spire of tightly furled, onion-scented leaves. In June the lance-shaped leaves wither and the plant sends up a stalk with an umbel of white flowers. Underground the stems swell into white bulbs connected by a mass of fibrous rootlets. These diminutive leeks reek of garlic, only stronger.

Throughout the Appalachian South, ramps are hailed with feasting at ramp suppers and festivals. The most famous of these community fundraisers include the Ramp Festival at Cosby, Tennessee,2 and the Feast of the Ramson at Richwood, West Virginia. Richwood, in fact, is home to the NRA--the National Ramp Association. But many smaller events proliferate throughout April and well into the month of May. From noon until 8 p.m., the women who organize this particular event will serve nearly five hundred plates piled high with potatoes, fried apples, pinto beans, cornbread, and ramps.

The week before the ramp supper is one of the year's busiest, and members of the Delbert Free Will Baptist Church divide the labor of production. Each evening the women meet in the Ramp House to clean and refrigerate the ramps brought in by the men from the upper-elevation hollows wrinkling the ridgelines. The female camaraderie on these evenings, pungent with the aroma of ramps, coffee, and sassafras tea, and punctuated with laughter, makes this an event in its own right. "We sit in a circle and clean ramps and talk," Delores Workman told me at last year's ramp supper. "It's a lot of fun. I love my ramp circle."

"You should hear the tales Jenny tells," laughed Judy Griffy. Hoping to, this year I am in the Ramp House the night before Ramp Day, chopping ramps and tape-recording the talk of a dozen women, worn out from a week of preparation, but excited about the day ahead. Only one man is present, Laffon Pettry's husband, Bob. Bob tolerates the women's razzing with good humor. "You put down that cigarette and get your knife and get busy," Mabel Brown warns him as he tries to take a break. "You'll be the first one we fire, Bob!"

"He's slightly outnumbered, isn't he," murmurs Theresa Elkins.

"He'd better watch it here with this gang of females!" Mabel teases, brandishing her knife.

Dusk gathers outside, and in the wake of the setting sun the stars are brightening into the sign of the ram, for which it is said that ramps were long ago named "ramsons" by the Swedes.3 Inside, the air is thick with the smell and the talk of ramps. Jenny Bonds tells about a ramp-themed basket her granddaughter gave her for Christmas, containing ramp vinegar, ramp seeds, dried ramps, ramp jelly, pickled ramps, even ramp wine. "I had some of the jelly," said Jenny. "It stunk." Other possibilities are advanced: ramp pizza or Jenny's ramp casserole, with sausage, potatoes, and cheese.


View of a patch of green plants.
descriptive record icon enlarge image icon  Woody Boggs's ramp patch. Lyntha Scott Eiler. 1996/04/11. Library of Congress American Folklife Center.

Two boys holding handfuls of plants.
descriptive record icon enlarge image icon  [Detail] Charles Quarles and Luke Taylor gathering ramps on Hazy Creek. Lyntha Scott Eiler. 1996/04/11. Library of Congress American Folklife Center.

Detail view of a basket filled with ramps.
descriptive record icon enlarge image icon  Pan of ramps, ready for cleaning. Lyntha Scott Eiler. 1996/04/11. Library of Congress American Folklife Center.

Two woman working at a stove.
descriptive record icon enlarge image icon  [Detail] Frying potatoes for the 1995 ramp supper on Drew's Creek. Terry Eiler. 1995/04/21. Library of Congress American Folklife Center.

A group of women around a table, cleaning vegetables.
descriptive record icon enlarge image icon  Cleaning ramps at the ramp house on the night before the ramp supper: (L - R) Mabel Brown, Jenny Bonds, Peggy Gilfillen, Delores Workman. Terry Eiler. 1995/04/21. Library of Congress American Folklife Center.

A woman at a stove, stirring the vegetables in a skillet.
descriptive record icon enlarge image icon  [Detail] Sautéing ramps and soaking potatoes in the ramp house kitchen. Terry Eiler. 1995/04/21. Library of Congress American Folklife Center.