Essay and photos by KAREN DILL
In April, the wild things emerge: Bears crawl from their dens; baby wolves are born while their parents howl at the moon; and mysteriously tender green shoots climb bravely from the ground. To an unsuspecting eye, the tiny foliage may resemble weeds, but to my mountain-bred father, they were supper.
My father loved nothing more than to head into the woods on a clear April morning and return with all matter of strange wild plants. For it was in the dark hollows and beside streams that flowed from the mountain ridges, he found a secret cache of edible plants that had no doubt sustained his family through the years of his poverty stricken childhood. He always went alone and remained as secretive about the location of his wild plant beds as a fisherman is about his favorite fishing hole.
On these treks, my father carried an old burlap sack (called it his “poke”) thrown over his shoulder and returned with his surreptitious collection of ramps, creasy greens, fiddlehead ferns, poke salat, dock and other greens lacking any name. When the sack was opened, out came a treasure trove. A few strange mushrooms emerged looking like alien spaceships. I kept a wide berth from them, but my father ate them with relish and never suffered a hint of indigestion.
The first prize from the poke to be cooked was the ramps. Those innocent little onions, so delicious to eat raw, turned mean the next day, making your breath resemble a dragon’s after a binge of cigarettes and cheap beer. I learned this one afternoon when a stranger came by our house to purchase some ramps (and a jar from the back of my father’s panel truck). My father warned him to go easy on both purchases as they could cause a man some problems the next day. The stranger questioned this advice.
“Well,” my father explained, “only ‘real mountaineers’ can eat ramps raw, and you’d sure better cook yours.”
That was all I needed to hear, at 8 years old, to know the supreme compliment from my father was to be a real mountain person—one who could eat ramps raw. So I snatched up a ramp, then four more, and chewed and swallowed them like an old timer. My father and the stranger were duly impressed.
My mother, however, was not impressed. Despite brushing my teeth five times with baking soda and chewing horehound candy (kept in the back of the cupboard for sore throats), the smell of the devious little ramps reigned. In my child’s world of magical thinking, I imagined that no one would notice. In the real world of mountain life and experience, my mother knew better and told me to stay home from school. My father grunted in disdain at that. So, wanting to be the tough little mountain girl, I headed down the dirt road for the school bus.
Second grade was easy for me. I could read, write and “do my numbers,” and I fit in fairly well with my classmates, but I was not prepared for what would happen over the course of that Monday. I was immediately ratted out by one of the Inman. “She stinks,” it was announced to the class, and Mrs. Hunter promptly took one whiff and sent me to the corner of the room to complete my work. I didn’t mind working alone, but I hated being sent to the “ramp table” at lunch time.
The ramp table at Bethel Elementary was where children who had eaten ramps sat to keep the non-ramp eaters from losing their lunch. Eating ramps in April was common. We all knew the school’s rule: come with “ramp breath” and you’ll get sent home. Like so many administrative edicts, this one was useless because most parents—especially the ramp-eating ones—didn’t have cars, much less telephones.
As my classmates giggled from across the lunchroom, I surveyed my new ramp-in-common friends. I was relieved to see a boy from my second-grade class, Billy Crowe, as well as his brothers and sisters. There were also a couple of rough high school boys. They all seemed to be regulars at that table. Billy was a shy, quiet Cherokee boy whose father logged up at Sunburst for a living. I had seen their small frame house by the river and wondered how his whole family could fit in that tiny shack.
I smiled shyly at Billy, who stared at the floor, and remembered a morning back in the fall of that same school year when Billy had a “fit” (what school officials now call a meltdown). No one knew why, but it all started when Billy threw a chair across the room. Two teachers rushed to pin him down while another ran for the principal. When Mr. Hunter arrived, he calmed Billy down and mumbled to the teachers about “them wild Injun kids.”
In those days, children who had a “meltdown” weren’t sent home, much less to a counselor. So that day Billy, with tear-stained cheeks, kept his head on his desk, sleeping and jerking awake with ragged sobs until the 3 o’clock bell rang.
Billy’s “fit” didn’t frighten me. I’d seen worse at home when my father had one of his big fits and threw more than a small school chair across the living room. I knew to duck. What I remember from that day was the wild anger and fear that danced in Billy’s eyes. His look haunted me, and I felt the beginnings of empathy for this tiny dark boy. Although I didn’t know the words then, I did know—even as an 8-year-old—that I understood Billy’s humiliation, his bewilderment. For who among us has not experienced moments of wild and furious fear?
So on that warm April day at the ramp table, Billy and I were outcasts, as were the others at the ramp table. We might be segregated from our other classmates, but we still had appetites. Between eager forkfuls of chicken pot pie, we began to smile at each other, taking some comfort in being together, if smelly.
At recess, Billy and I drew designs in the dirt with small grubby fingers. I asked him how many of them lived in that house by the river. He asked me what I had done to get angry red belt stripes down my legs. We talked about daddies who went crazy every once in a while. We probably found out more about each other in ramp-breath whispers on a dirt playground than any teacher or social worker ever could have. For the rest of that year and until the Crowe family moved to Canton, Billy and I did not exchange words again, but we did share a secret shy smile once in a while.
Years later, when my memories of ramps, wild greens from a poke and a small Cherokee boy had long since faded, I returned from living abroad and began a new teaching job in the Cherokee school system. On my first day, I ran into another school employee, Eddie Crowe.
Eddie, it turned out, was Billy’s older brother, and he remembered me from the Bethel ramp table. We quickly caught up on our lives since elementary school. Most of the Crowe family had moved back to Cherokee, but in the 1970s, Billy had been killed in a car accident while riding his bicycle less than a mile from our old school.
Eddie became a renewed friend at my new school. Over the years, we talked of Bethel, Billy, ramps and all things wild and wonderful. He brought me a mess of ramps almost every spring until he married one of our mutual teacher friends and took another job. I loved cooking the ramps along with other native greens each April. With each bite, I thought of Billy and the April ramp table.
This April, the ramps for a wild green dinner will be provided by Mickie and Peewee Crowe, cousins of Eddie and Billy. Sochan, called green-headed coneflower by non-Indians, is a popular dish here in Cherokee in the spring and will be delivered by my friends, Fern and Soup Saunooke. These wild greens are hard to come by unless, like my father, you know their secret hiding places or, in my case, you know the right people. I try to score these precious greens each spring and this year will try them out in some new dishes.
I will use the sochan mixed with some goat cheese, fresh dill, parsley, green onions and leeks for the main dish—a delicious strudel. The strudel uses phyllo leaves, which I can find at any grocery store in the mountains now. I have found an interesting Madeira-mushroom sauce recipe from a vegetarian magazine that I think will make a good partner with the strudel. The recipe calls for shiitake mushrooms, but in case I have trouble finding these, I will use wild local mushrooms (bought at Earth Fare grocery store, as I don’t trust those alien shapes from local totes anymore). The sauce will be pooled on each plate. Individual slices of wild green strudel will be placed in the center of each pool, and sauce will be drizzled artfully over the top.
The ramps will be used in a couple of dishes for the wild green dinner. First, I’ll grill some over charcoal to use in a grilled ramp soup, a simple dish using chicken broth and heavy cream. The others will be used in a traditional ramp ’n’ tater dish and some buttermilk biscuits. I will resist the urge to sample the little devils raw.
Branch lettuce, also called wild lettuce, can be found in early April along creek banks. We ate it raw when my father brought it home in his poke—washed well, tossed with some green onions and wilted with bacon grease. I will skip the bacon grease this year for health reasons and instead dress the torn lettuce leaves with fresh spring herb vinaigrette. If I can locate some young fiddleheads (they’ll need to be blanched first and then grilled) or dandelion greens, I’ll throw them in the mix.
Wild spring greens beg to be served with cornbread, but I’ve found a recipe for ramp biscuits in a recent issue of Bon Appetite that I’ve been dying to try. Southern cooks have no problem with two breads at the table, so cornbread and biscuits it is!
For dessert, I will prepare a basic carrot cake. Carrots are a trustworthy spring crop, and there should be plenty for a fresh cake. My friend and co-worker Devlin, a speech pathologist and bee keeper, has promised some of his local honey to be used as a substitute for sugar in the cake so it will be in keeping with the natural goodness of this wild and wonderful meal.
The meal will be cooked at my house in Webster and taken to Cherokee, warmed up in the school oven and served to friends who have contributed the gifts of wild ramps and greens. If the evening is nice, we’ll haul the food to a picnic table on the island across from the school in the Oconafultee River.
As we sit by the river, eating our ramps and wild greens, I’ll remember the wild and wonderful dishes in the spring times of my childhood. I’ll remember a small shack by another river in Bethel where a shy Cherokee boy lived and died. I’ll remember the ramp table and the connection I felt with my Cherokee friends. I’ll remember that sometimes in our lives, we travel full circle.
Karen Dill is a school psychologist on the Cherokee Reservation by day and a food writer by night. Her articles most recently have been published on spooningmag.com, and she is working on a book that chronicles a year of mountain foods and memories, scheduled to be published later this year.