WAITING ALL WINTER & LONGER.
Now that it is behind us, I can say it without fear of retribution – I hate Winter, the short days, the gloom of fading light at five o’clock. I miss fresh food and savoring the flavor of sun on dirt transformed into tasty goodness. I am weary of cooking beans and kale and cabbages.
The return of longer days isn’t the only thing I have been waiting for. I have been waiting for the emergence of all those wonderful wild things that grow in the surrounding hills and mountains. (Not to mention the intoxicating fragrance of daphne – which is blooming now, as I write this). Since moving to western North Carolina in 1972 I have foraged – mainly mushrooms, but also poke salad, branch lettuce and most wonderful of all – ramps.
Allium tricoccum – wild leeks, “are one of the first plants to emerge in the spring, traditionally consumed as the season’s first greens. They are considered a tonic because they provide necessary vitamins and minerals following long winter months without fresh vegetables.” I love them because they taste like garlic, have a fresh crunch and seem to get the juices moving again in my winter weary body. This is most likely true, as research now shows that the sulfur compounds in onions, garlic and leeks has definite, positive medicinal properties.
Last week I drove over to Stecoah, North Carolina to meet up with Beverly Whitehead and Dustin Raxter. I met the two of them in Torino, Italy of all places, in 2006 when we were all attending Slow Food’s Terra Madre – a convention of producers of indigenous foodstuffs from all corners of the globe. At that time, we made a connection – having common interest in wild foods found in the Smoky Mountains. Over the past four years we have worked together some on a project that Beverly heads up – The Smoky Mountain Native Plant Association (SMNPA) – but more on that in a later post. I have been working on an “invitation” to meet her group and gather native plants with them – ramps among the plants they gather. So, after a long time waiting, not just a season, but years, I was invited.
Ramps are an endangered species, on the USDA plant list they are listed “special concern, commercially exploited”. Some of the work that SMNPA does is to train their members in sustainable harvest, as well as carrying out cultivation trials. So, it didn’t seem strange that I was told I would be blindfolded when we left their office on our drive out into the mountains. (It is true that ramps do have a broad range in the eastern North American mountains – however, the fact that in recent years wild ramps are ‘stylish’ in many restaurants, there is ecological pressure on these plants as a result of over-harvesting and unsustainable practices). The life cycle of a ramp is six years from seed to seed-bearing plants. The plant will regenerate from a stalk harvested in a manner that leaves the roots in the ground. For this reason NEVER purchase ramps with the roots attached – they should show evidence of having been cut above the root plate.
Bear Hunters’ Cornpone circa 1835
A simple food typical of the time and place – nothing fancy – but something to keep you trekking across the mountain.
- 2 cups cornmeal
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1 1/2 cups buttermilk
- Mix together. Bake in a hot overn (400F) in a greased iron skillet unitl golden. Cool, cut and stuff in your ruck sack.
On this particular day, Dustin was going to take me into the woods to learn to identify terrain prior to the first emergence of any plants – learning the “tell-tale” signs of the woods as it were. Dustin is a Mountain Man, without question. His home is the out-of-doors. Given a choice, he would rather walk a half day into to town, than drive. For practical reasons, much of the meat his family consumes is harvested from the woods surrounding his home. (Graham County, including the towns of Stecoah and Robbinsville, is one of the poorest regions in Appalachia). He is a guide of the native trout waters in the area, he is an excellent hunter. When I arrived he was ready for the woods – dressed in full ‘camo’, including calf high snake proof boots, something he added to his gear last year after taking a rattlesnake strike in the ankle. It required four vials of anti-venom to offset the poison. For a portion of our walk, he carried a 12 gauge shotgun loaded with a 1 ounce slug – as protection against a pack of coyotes – which he claimed would kill and eat anything. The country we were headed into is as wild as it gets east of the Mississippi.
As we were still a month ahead of the scheduled harvest, which this year begins April 16, determined by the moon phase and other signs (“when the leaves on the maple trees are as big as squirrels’ paws, 6 weeks to corn planting time”) Dustin was relying on his knowledge of the area and typical places the ramps would grow. I asked what the signs were – “moss covered rotting trees, damp spots, near by creeks, shade.” Of course this time of year, there is no shade, as the leaves are not out, only the faintest whisper of tender red and light green bud tips. On the way in, on the north side, we walked through snow, as well as being turned back from another spot, as the road was impassable. Our walk was a ramble, hiking down, crossing over, rooting around on hands and knees.
Virtually every spot he cleared, we found the tender shoots just emerging from moist earth, not yet warm enough to smell of “life”, composted leaf matter and fulfilled promise of another Spring. Not everything we found was a ramp – which is something to be wary of, - some were other types of lilies, some plants the names I have forgotten. Dustin explained that he has been collecting in the wild all his life. Since becoming a member of the SMNPA he has changed his view and his methods. Today he only collects by cutting, never removing the root plate from the earth. He has also learned to cultivate the plant and has a number of patches growing above where he lives (the area I was led blind-folded). He has developed a disdain for others who do otherwise, having come to realize the real value of these native and wild plants. The small amount of money he makes in the few weeks of ramp harvest keep his grandmother’s home in winter heat, where he lives with his wife.
We hike for a few hours, we are quiet most of the time, as is the habit of one that spends a lifetime in the wild. It is my way in the woods as well, having landed in a similar spot to this when I first moved to the mountains. Our aim is not to collect much, rather, to reconnoiter and share some time together. We dig a handful, enough for Beverly to cook with some potatoes and a few for me to take home. The afternoon is glorious, a harbinger of the coming harvest. I will come back in a month to work with the crew, collecting and processing ramps.
We head out, drive back to Dustin’s house and sit down to a meal of red beans, collards, corn bread and some ham that Beverly has previously cooked and canned. There are corn-meal fried wild brook and brown trout fillets, crispy bones and heads, plus Dustin’s grandmother’s cornbread, slightly sweet. All washed down with ice tea or coke.
As I leave, Dustin hands me a haunch of wild pig that he has hunted and a handful of the ramps we picked. Standing outside his house, I felt like I had come home again.
BREAST OF CHICKEN WITH COUNTRY HAM AND RAMPS
This is not what you will find to eat in Stecoah, North Carolina. I rather doubt such an extravagant dish would ever be served – the ham would have it’s very own place on the table as well as the chicken.
For two people
- 1 boneless breast of chicken, about 7 ounces
- 1 tablespoon of bacon fat
- 1 ounce of finely cut country ham, such as Hickory Nut Gap or Benton’s
- small handful of ramps, cleaned
- 1/2 cups chicken stock
- 1 cup finely shredded cabbage
- salt & pepper
In a heavy skillet with a lid, heat the bacon fat over medium heat. Lightly brown the chicken on both sides, about 1 minute to a side. Season with salt and pepper and remove from the pan when browned. Add the country ham and the ramps to the skillet and brown and stir for about a minute. Add the chicken stock, bring to a simmer and reduce the heat. Return the chicken to the pan, correct the seasonings, cover and simmer for 6 – 8 minutes. Poke the chicken and make sure it is not getting ‘hard’. It should remain springy to the touch. At the 8 minute mark, add the cabbage and cover once again. If the chicken is done, remove it from the pan, keep warm. Cook the cabbage for about 4 minutes – it will depend on how finely you have cut it. Reduce the liquid slightly, if necessary. To serve, place the cabbage on the plate, slice the breast, dividing it equally on the two plates, spoon the sauce around. Serve with grits or potatoes roasted with more ramps.