Have you ever found yourself saying, "Ah, a fine spring day at last! I wish I had a ramp to gnaw on!"
No? Then you're unlike the many, many chefs and green-market enthusiasts across the country who constitute the Church of the Ramp. Of course, they don't really gnaw on raw ramps, also known as wild leeks; they pickle them, char them and do a million other artful things with the onion-like stalk, the first green vegetable of spring in much of North America. There is no shortage of enthusiasts, both at home and in restaurants; after all, the Church of the Ramp is one of the fastest-growing denominations in the religion of seasonality.
Now, if you're a seasonality or green-market agnostic, as I am, you may not even know what a ramp looks like. I didn't for a long time, even as a professional food writer. I had some vague notion of them being some kind of wilted green, which isn't too far off the mark; they have a bulb at one end, long green stalks like leeks and leaves at the top. They taste somewhat garlicky. A nice enough plant, you might think, but nothing to get worked up about, right?
You'd be wrong. "I love ramps," says chef David Myers of Sona and Comme Ça in Los Angeles. "They taste wild to me, like an intense, pungent onion flavor mixed with the forest." "Ramps are a spring treat that have a quick season and are much better-tasting than cultivated leeks, scallions or chives," says Mark Fuller of Seattle's Spring Hill, one of Food and Wine's best new chefs last year. "Our guests also get excited for ramps." But does he think the humble ramp warrants this much hoopla? "Overvalued? Not to me," he says.
Ramps are further proof, if any were needed, that food isn't just food anymore. I don't actually believe ramps are any better or more wild-tasting than garlic chives or 860 other related wild onions that nobody pays attention to. If you take any random greens and pickle them and serve them with soft-shell crabs, or sauté the leaves in butter and put them atop incredible pancetta and artichoke spaghetti, of course it will be good! Ramps are like the foraged-greens version of stone soup.
What makes ramps ramps is not their flavor, you see, but their cultural value. David Kamp, the author of The Food Snob's Dictionary, offers this explanation to TIME: "The ramp is not a salad green, but it is a green vegetable, and it is the first legitimately green thing that appears from the ground in April, a month that, in terms of farm yield, is otherwise an extension of winter. For food snobs, therefore, ramps are overcelebrated and overly scrutinized, like the first ballgame played in April, even with 161 more games ahead."
There's also the fact that, until recently, ramps were hard to get. Aside from their short window of availability (two to three weeks, max), a lot of markets simply didn't have them. Do a search for ramps on the Chowhound discussion boards, and over the course of a few years you'll go from its almost total obscurity to the veggie's showing up at Whole Foods. As Davina Baum, the managing editor at Chow, a leading site for adventurous home cooks, put it, "You always remember the first time you said, 'What are ramps?' and you got a smug look because the cook was totally expecting that question."
Does all this sound familiar? The hyping of a previously unknown green that doesn't taste particularly strongly of anything? The testimonials to its cultural power? If so, you're probably thinking of arugula, whose cultural life cycle has already come and gone. Arugula, a salad green that looks kind of like lettuce, became so gentrified over the course of the past 20 years or so that Kamp used it in the title of his 2006 primer on how we became a gourmet nation: The United States of Arugula.
So are ramps the new arugula? They're more than that. They're more valuable than arugula, because of their shorter growing season and because it takes much more skill to use them well. And they really are good, at least when cooked by the master chefs who use them so ostentatiously.
My worry is that ramps will soon become as passé as arugula, and that seasonal-minded cooks will take up another spring product, like the fiddlehead fern, as the green of the moment. There is nothing good about the fiddlehead fern. It's not even the wild cousin of anything good. And if fiddlehead ferns start getting touted on menus, then this green-market business will have definitely gone too far.
Josh Ozersky is a James Beard Awardwinning food writer and the author of The Hamburger: A History. His food video site, Ozersky.TV, is updated daily. He is currently at work on a biography of Colonel Sanders.