The old guard in Centre County may remember that I wrote about ramps before, in April 2000.
“Tom Douthit Sr., of Spring Mills, knows all about ramps, or leeks, as he calls them. ‘They come out during trout season and were our ticket, 50 years ago when I was in high school, to getting a couple of extra days of fishing time in. You ate the leeks, about three dozen of them, and the next day the teacher sent you home from school because you smelled so bad.’ Douthit recalls eating sandwiches of the fresh bulbs, and also sautéing the bulbs in a little butter until they are translucent to make them milder.”
Wild leeks, or ramps as they are called in many parts of southern Appalachia, are a member of the wild onion family and are known officially as Allium tricoccum. Euell Gibbons, in his classic field guide “Stalking the Wild Asparagus,” still the bible for would-be foragers, considers “wild leek bulbs the sweetest and the best of the wild onions.”
Allium tricoccum prefer dense, rich woods, especially sugar maple groves, and range from New England to North Carolina, west to Minnesota and Iowa. Though our region in central Pennsylvania is too rocky for them in general, they can be found in the right places by the careful woods sleuth. They are extremely popular in the southern Appalachians, where annual ramp festivals in West Virginia draw large crowds of celebrants.
My conversation with Douthit had me salivating, and led me on a serious hunt for the first spring edible, whatever it was called. I enlisted the help of veteran “woods sleuth” Bill Russell, and we went on several walks in Centre County, spaced a couple of weeks apart. Eagle-eyed Russell eventually found a patch, and I got to sample the delicacy, though he lamented that the patch was sparse.
I would have never found them on my own, unsure of their natural habitat; they are shy in our local terrain. They were delicious and I searched off and on for the next decade and a half with no luck. I did attend a ramp festival one year in Mason-Dixon Park, about three hours drive from here in Mount Morris, and enjoyed deep-fried ramps and a ramp burger, but I never saw the plants in situ as I drove down around Dunkard Creek into the hollers of West Virginia through private and posted land. I didn’t venture off road.
Then last year we found them, in the woods, in their glory, about two hours north of State College, in the Allegheny National Forest, where they are known as leeks. My husband and I went up toward Westline and stayed at a friend’s cabin. Launching out in the Allegheny National Forest to go to the Leekfest celebration in Westline the next morning, John abruptly stopped the car on the gravel forest road and just said, “Look.” Green spear-like leaves filled the forest floor; the leeks were everywhere. We had found the mother lode.
According to DCNR regulations, “Edible wild plants or plant parts may be gathered without authorization if they are gathered for one’s own personal or family consumption.” Armed with trowels, we set to work.
The plant is well-rooted in the soil; you don’t “pick” leeks, you “dig” them. There’s effort involved, and lots of bending, which makes them all the more worthwhile.
They grow in moist areas, so they are muddy with hairy roots that need brushing so you don’t carry out more of the forest than you want.
After an hour or so, we were rich with leeks and continued on to the Westline Inn, where the festival was in full swing.
The day was drizzly and cloudy, but the crowd in the large fenced-in perimeter around the Westline didn’t mind. A country band was playing from a stage set up on an 18-wheeler, and people circled in cars and on motorcycles looking for a place to park.
Picnic tables were tucked in every level space and folks milled and buzzed, snacking on ham and leek sandwiches for sale at booths outside, waiting to hear about how the competition was going inside the inn.
Julia Frick, one of the owners of the inn along with Jonathan and Trudy Pomeroy, provided some details about what will be the 26th annual Leekfest from noon to 6:30 p.m. April 27.
“The event is a fundraiser for the Kinzua Valley Trail Club, which provides hiking and biking opportunities in the area. We are expecting 60 to 70 entries in the contest, which is called a ‘leek dip’ contest but we have an ‘other’ category that people get creative with. There are three judges, and all have been doing the contest for a while.”
The $5 cover charge gives you sampling rights once the judging is completed in the midafternoon and helps support the two bluegrass bands that entertain the crowd all day.
I noticed last year that some veteran attendees also carried in their own crackers, because vehicles for all the dip sampling disappeared rather quickly. It was a fun time and a great spring tonic to celebrate that first wild edible that signals the end of the winter and a return to harvesting the great gifts of our Pennsylvania wilds.
Kingofstink.com is a website that lists information about dinners in six states throughout the Appalachian range.
The 24th annual Ramp Festival at the Mason Dixon Historical Park in Mount Morris runs April 26and 27 from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. each day. Parking and admission is free.
The Westline Inn Leekfest is not listed on that site, but will take place April 27from noon to 6:30 p.m. in Westline, which is about 20 minutes from Kane.
The 13th annual Bradford Stinkfest will take place in Bradford on May 3 from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., with the leek dip contest taking place between noon and 2 or 3 p.m. Voting at this contest is by purchased public vote.
If you do head north to sample leek delicacies, don’t miss Bell’s Meat Market in Kane, where proprietor Jack Bell sells his 2013 Stinkfest winners in both Cajun and original varieties. Bell is happy to spread a sample on a Ritz cracker for you so you can decide which one you want to buy. Take a cooler for some of his internationally famous homemade sausages, including some with leeks.
Another tip for this remote area is to stay at the Kane Manor Inn and to visit Kinzua Bridge State Park, site of the Kinzua Viaduct. Once dubbed the eighth wonder of the world, it was ripped apart by a tornado in July 2003.
Anne Quinn Corr is a former caterer and culinary educator who is the author of Seasons of Central Pennsylvania, a cookbook about regional foods. She writes this monthly Well-Seasoned column and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.