DIGGING DEEP FOR RAMPS

Collecting Them Not As Easy As Picking Daisies

(Reprint from the Charleston Daily Mail)


Brad McElhinny
Daily Mail staff

Thursday April 19, 2001

Dorvil Taylor has dug ramps frequently enough to have plenty of helpful advice. He offered a straightforward method for gathering the potent root: “Just dig what you can dig.” As ramp dinners become more popular, more and more people are hiking up West Virginia’s hills to dig them.

ramps1.jpg (32802 bytes)
Photo by Tom Hindman/Daily Mail

The group from Calhoun County found an entire hillside covered with ramps. After a couple of hours, the group had filled about nine burlap bags. The hard part was hauling the heavy bags back down the muddy, steep hill. “People say we’re crazy,” said Wanda Richards, “but when we’re determined, we’re determined."

ramps2.jpg (49720 bytes)
Photo by Tom Hindman/Daily Mail

Everybody talks about the pungent odor of ramps, but digging the Appalachian delicacy produces a different set of concerns: My legs are tired. My back is hurting. I am hungry. My nose is running. And my burlap bag is filling very, very slowly.

I have come to this hillside with a group of Calhoun County residents who are planning a ramp dinner to support the community center in the town of Minnora. To pay the electric bill, they will sell ramps prepared with potatoes, scrambled eggs and bacon

. A man named Dorvil Taylor has led me across a rocky slope and into the fog where the hillside is covered by long, green leaves. Those are the ramps. "They're thick as the hair on a dog's back," Dorvil tells me. "Just dig what you can dig."

So, I start swinging my pick. Pretty quickly, I realize why hillside farming never really caught on.

Ramp dinners are becoming even more popular, though. People enjoy the look on your face when you try a ramp, which is like a green onion but more potent. The culinary adventure is a good way for community groups to make money.

So, each spring, more and more community groups decide to have a ramp dinner to pay the bills. And each spring, people more or less like me climb steep hillsides to dig ramps.

I am tagging along on this trip because I have responded to an e-mail: "Anyone wishing to help dig ramps can call the number above." The woman on the other end of the telephone number is Wanda Richards, a resident of Chloe.

Three years ago, Wanda and other community center supporters decided to gather ramps near the Pocahontas and Webster county line, where they had often been fishing and camping. Once there, they asked the residents about the best place to find the ramps.

The first year, the ramp dinner raised $600 for the community center. This will be the third year for the dinner, so the Calhoun County crowd has gotten the act of gathering ramps pretty close to a science. I am learning as I go along.

Tom, the photographer, and I are to meet Wanda and several others at the Go- Mart in Big Otter at 7 o'clock on a Monday morning. Fortunately, Go-Mart has coffee.

In our group there are Robert and Mary Lou King, who have brought their grandson Matt, who is on spring break. There is Gene Hicks, who has bad knees. There is Dorvil Taylor, who gives me advice throughout the day.

And finally, there are Lawrence and Rose Jarvis. Lawrence doesn't particularly like digging ramps, but he plans to go fishing in the afternoon. "Rose is a real good digger," Wanda tells me. "She can dig those ramps."

As for Wanda, she considers herself best suited to follow behind the diggers, gathering the ramps, shaking the dirt off and stuffing them into the burlap sacks. Wanda and Rose generally do the cooking for the dinner, too.

Wanda also has a definite idea about how to eat a ramp.

"I like mine with a bologna sandwich," she says. "You take a bite of ramp and then a bite of sandwich."

>From Big Otter, we wind our way through the central part of the state, from Interstate 79 and then onto smaller roads through Cowen and alongside the Williams River. The scenery is beautiful. The landscape is green, and we pass trees with violet blossoms.

We finally arrive at an area called "County Line Trail" in the Monongahela National Forest. No one seems exactly sure what side of the county line we are on. All I know is, the trail looks muddy and steep.

It doesn't take long to realize that I am a moron. I had thought the weather would be warm, and I actually considered wearing shorts. Instead, I am in jeans, a T-shirt and a light jacket. And it is absolutely freezing.

It doesn't feel any better when Wanda assures me, "When you start climbing that mountain, that'll warm your butt up."

Fortunately, Tom the photographer has heavier clothes in the trunk and lets me borrow a coat and some rain pants. It helps that Tom is prepared, but it doesn't change my misguided notion that digging ramps will be easy.

That's a simple matter of ignoring the facts. I am aware that the part of the ramp that people like to eat is the root. And I am carrying a large, metal pick in my hand. But I am still envisioning an activity as strenuous as picking daisies in the park.

Halfway up the hill, I am out of breath and wondering where the ramps are. At last, Dorvil points at one: "See the ramp right there, buddy? Right there against that log." He's right. It's a clump of leaves shaped like thin spades. I think, Is that the only one? Still, I feel the sort of relief that sailors must feel when they see that first bird that indicates dry land.

We hike much, much farther up the hill before anyone sees fit to stop. I remain winded, even though I am the youngest person on the trip. Dorvil, who remains in front of me, is in his 60s. When I finally catch up to him, he's standing in the fog in a field of green.

"It's like a hayfield," he says.

The ramps are in patches, and they go all the way up the hill. They are much thicker than I had ever thought. They are so plentiful, it's easy to see why people started eating them. Early settlers must have been grateful after long, hard winters.

Everyone else has started digging, and I'm still not sure how. I start whacking away with my pick with mixed results. Sometimes I'm getting the white root, but other times I'm just cutting off the leaves. Based on Wanda's recommendation, I ask Rose how it's done.

"Just look for a big pile and dig deep," she says.

So, I go back to my original method. It's hard work. You're bent over most of the time, swinging the pick, gathering the ramps or stuffing the bag. The pick starts to hurt your hands. And you get mud all over your body.

Before long, though, I have filled the bottom of my sack, and I feel like I'm making progress. It's a mirage. A little while later, my back has started to ache. I peer into my sack, and it seems no more full than before.

I walk over toward Lawrence and Rose, hoping to absorb some secret -- a more efficient digging method or an easier patch of ramps to dig. Instead, they seem to be doing about what I've been doing, except better. After two hours, I still haven't filled half my bag.

A windfall finally comes after Lawrence has filled a plastic Wal-Mart shopping bag with ramps. He dumps the contents into my burlap sack. I am ecstatic. Through no work of my own, I have doubled my quantity. The second time Lawrence does this, I feel even better.

With my sack nearly full, I decide it is OK to be exhausted. I ignore the fact that Lawrence has done most of my work and take a seat on a rock. Wanda announces to everyone, "OK, quit digging. We're done." That's about 10 minutes after I've already quit.

Together, we've collected nine sacks of ramps. Dorvil estimates the entire weight to be 400 pounds. It seems impressive until you stop to consider how you're going to get them down the mountain.

Dorvil -- who, it bears repeating, is in his 60s -- ties two bags together and slings them over one shoulder. I take one bag and drag it behind me. Normally, going down a hill is a relief, but under these conditions it is twice as challenging.

With 40 pounds of ramps, it is hard to balance. And my sneakers are not suited to produce traction in the mud. I've gone only a few yards before my feet slip out from under me and I land on my behind. By the 10th time this occurs, it is somewhat less embarrassing.

Finally, we reach flat land. I have never seen a parking lot look so good. It is such a relief that I fall one more time. I drop my sack with the rest and wander off toward a creek to wash the mud off my shoes and hands.

Once all the sacks are piled together, it looks like an impressive haul. We all congratulate each other. Then I ask the question that has been on my mind: If you've done this once, why would you ever do it again?

"After a year's gone by," explains Rose, "you forget."

Wanda tries to convince me that the enjoyment has only started.

"What's really fun is when we clean the ramps," she says, "and you just sit and clean and everybody talks and socializes."

Well, maybe next year.