I can well recall the first time I encountered ramps. I was making my way through the woods along the Rush River in Wisconsin, below the 570th Avenue crossing (what used to be called Northview Road). I kicked through a patch of broad, spear-shaped leaves, what looked like overgrown lilies of the valley, and I smelled something oniony, chivey--good. I bent down and picked up one of the leaves my wading boots had crushed--smelled even better up close. I didn't gather any, but I filed the moment away in my mind. I had no idea then what the plants were called, or whether they were edible.
Probably a year or two went by, and then I started seeing mention of chefs serving wild leeks called ramps in fancy New York restaurants. There were also articles about ramp and trout festivals in the Blue Ridge region. That caught my interest particularly. At the co-op one day, in the produce section, I noticed bunches of some kind of green onion, broad, spear-shaped leaves, an attractive reddish section to the stem, a thick white bulb on the end. They were ramps, and they were going for three dollars a bunch--I weighed one on the hanging scale, not quite four ounces, over $12 a pound. Huh.
I took a trowel with me the next time I went fishing, found one of those oniony smelling patches, dug a few up. Yep, the very same. I looked around me. Ramps were everywhere. Twelve bucks a pound. I was rich! Except, they weren't my ramps, I was trespassing, technically (you're only actually trespassing if you get caught, I reckon), and even had they been my ramps, it was a long trip from the loamy streamside forest to cash in the pocket. I found that out a few years later, when I harvested ramps to sell at the farmers market where we mainly sold bread. I did it to bring some interest to the market in the very early weeks of the season, and it turned out to be a lot of work for a little money. Responsible market foragers do not get rich, quick or ever.
From the very beginning I enjoyed ramps--I mean, it's great to bring fresh, free vegetables back from the stream to cook up with my trout, and they are one of the first wild foods to appear in the spring. But I couldn't wrap my mind around $12 a pound, or quite understand the cachet that ramps came to have with the chefs of fine restaurants, especially those devoted to local and seasonal cooking. They're a wonderful, seasonal treat, but in the greater world of alliums I wouldn't give up leeks, shallots, or regular old onions to make way for ramps, if I had to choose.
Now those days when we were all just discovering what a ramp is seem like very innocent times, in light of the explosion of interest in wild-foraged foods, the logical extension of the local, seasonal foods movement. Everyone's a forager, or wants to be--wild foods are the hottest trend in high-end gastronomy, and foraged vegetables like morels, watercress, fiddleheads, and ramps draw crowds at farmers markets and co-ops. The trend worries me a bit, because wild plant communities are often more sensitive than might first appear. A clump of ramps, it turns out, takes years to grow to size; watercress can carpet a spring, seeming inexhaustible, but if you're not careful to only snip the upper leaves, not disturbing the roots, the patch can be wiped out in short order. And I wonder if anyone's checking to see that those wild foods in the produce section are being harvested responsibly. I wonder because, for a time, I was an irresponsible ramp harvester--I would fork out a whole clump, never imagining that it might have taken seven to ten years for it to grow to that size. The realization struck me one day: that forest full of ramps, the spring full of cress, well, they look that way because they've been left alone for years and years. And what Great Nature took years to produce, one ill-informed forager can lay to waste in no time.
Ahem. Well, I didn't actually set out here to write a sobering lament. But I find my mind in conflict as I take up the topic, because for me foraging--and cooking with wild foods--is a quiet, personal, intimate activity, full of meaning and ineffable satisfactions; but the burgeoning of interest in wild foods, along with the ability of everyone with a keypad to express their every thought instantly to the whole universe, seem to put the world of wild-foraged food out there in flashing lights, blaring fanfare, Technicolor billboards.
To each his or her own, and I don't hold myself above anyone in this regard. I will admit I rankle a bit at foraging "authorities" as newly sprung as a spring mushroom, who pompously proclaim upon the topic as if they were the first to discover that you can eat dandelion greens, whose knowledge of the topic is wafer thin and whose interest in it lasts just as long as someone is paying attention to them. Myself, I'm Socratic in my approach: All I know is that I know next to nothing, and try to keep learning. And I know I'll be back in the woods next spring, and the next, and the next.
The pretty picture that heads this post, that is what I really want to talk about. It's the product of a peripatetic forage at Bide-A-Wee and environs--wild asparagus and ostrich fern fiddleheads picked from the roadside; wood nettles, bracken fern, and morels found on our land. When you have some familiarity with a few wild foods, and with the places where you find them, foraging becomes every bit the pastoral idyll that it's cracked up to be. The learning curve can be steep, worrisome, and sometimes painful--the darling little nettle shoots you can pick with bare fingers in May become a formidable, neck-high barrier between you and your chanterelle grounds in July. Answering the question of why we choose to do it is complicated, and constantly shifting, for it is a different activity depending on the time of the year, and the wild food in question.
With these easily accessible, early spring foods, the answer is easy: They're there, they're fresh, green, delicious, and free. Given that one enjoys the taste of these foods, the question becomes not why forage, but why not? This time of year, we just take our usual walk at Bide-A-Wee land, and I always have a few bags tucked in my back pocket. By the time we get back to the cabin that empty vegetable larder is magically overflowing.
On the other hand, just yesterday I drove 180 miles round trip to trudge through the southeastern Minnesota woods for a few hours in search of the elusive (to me) morel. I found, maybe, twelve, got scratched up by currant and blackberry vines, strained my sore left knee, got sunburned, and enjoyed every minute of it--which would seem to point to a certain perversity in my character, and illustrate the masochistic streak not uncommon in foragers, generally. (In my defense, I also brought home trout from the trip, along with ramps, wood nettles, and ostrich fiddleheads--but I could have gotten all those things with a much shorter drive.)
Why one forages also has something to do with that intangible quality of wild foods, to wit, wildness. At first this is an exotic aspect of wild foods--who knew you could walk around your own back yard and make a salad from wild weeds? Who knew that sought-after, expensive luxury foods like chanterelles, black trumpets, and porcini grew wild in our own local woods? With time and experience the exotic becomes familiar, of course. Wild foods never lose the allure of their wildness, though it recedes.
I've been reading this rather interesting book lately, Trout Caviar: Recipes from a Northern Forager, which also includes some thought-provoking essays. A passage from one seems to pertain here:
Wild foods have been a part of my diet for enough years now that I don’t really make a distinction between wild and cultivated foods anymore. It’s not that I can’t tell the difference between my vegetable garden and wild nature—well, in truth, that distinction does become a bit blurred at times, when weeds run rampant. But I do know the difference between a ramp and a scallion, nettles and spinach. Once they reach my kitchen, though, they’re all the same to me: food, good food, local food. When I look in my refrigerator and see jars of cornichons, pickled ramps, bread and butters, and milkweed “capers,” I don’t think, “Grown food, wild food, bought food, wild food”; no, I think, “Pickles.”
And yet the fact that wild foods are found, not grown in one's own garden or raised on a farm, not bought, is an essential part of what draws us to them. There is magic in peering into the shadows of an overarching currant bush at the base of a dead elm tree and espying, in the cushion of bright green moss, a morel. Miracle! There is magic, too, in the annual return of the ramps, knifing up through the chill loam once the snow is barely gone, even though I know exactly where to find them.
What I think one gains from the foraging experience, beyond some interesting things to eat (and, of course, the bug bites), is an awareness that all food really comes from nature, even those products of big industrial farms. The sun above and the soil below, that alchemy I mention elsewhere, pertains in every case, though the sterilized soil that grows industrial crops is a perversion, to be sure. But if you were to leave those dead zones alone for even a little while, Great Nature would make things better.
To be continued....
Text and photos copyright 2011 by Brett Laidlaw
Italicized sections from Trout Caviar: Recipes from a Northern Forager, to be published in September 2011 by Borealis Books of the Minnesota Historical Society Press. Copyright 2001, all rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews. For information, write to the Minnesota Historical Society Press, 345 Kellogg Blvd. W., St. Paul, MN 55102-1906.