March 13, 2017
I fucking hate ramps.
[makes tea, turns on CSPAN, adjusts heat to 80 degrees.]
It all started in 2004. I was working at a catering company, a good one, where my daily responsibilities included making vinaigrettes, packing up salads, doing dishes, and occasionally burning an entire case of figs. It was great, namely because there were only three employees, and I, being the least skilled and most prone to injury, had very little expected of me. I existed in a bubble where I could mess up, learn at my own pace in a one-on-one environment, and not have my spirit crushed on a daily basis. It was fantastic — until spring rolled around, and I learned that not all vegetables are created equally. I didn't know it at the time, but I was about to meet my nemesis, in the form of an onion.
“I wanna get ramps in,” my chef said in my general direction. “Do you know where we can get ramps?”
I thought about this. “I mean, we could probably build one. It would make loading out for events easier, we wouldn't have to use the loading dock…”
My chef frowned at me while his sous tried to stifle his laughter behind him.
“Ramps,” he repeated. “Wild onions. If you see any, pick them up and ill reimburse you.”
This was an exciting challenge for me, because a couple weeks earlier I hadn't been able to identify a radish. My boss asking to help source an ingredient felt cool. Eager to deliver, I searched EVERYWHERE. I made phone calls. I asked a purveyor in New York if they would ship to me (they wouldn’t). Then I got a tip: Dean & Deluca had them, an hour and a half away, in Napa. I got in the car and started driving.
All I remember from the drive back is shooting glances at these tiny onions sitting in the passenger seat, with their absurdly leafy tops, the bag wet with condensation. What was the big deal? Why were they so expensive and hard to find? When I got back to the kitchen, I proudly presented the bag to my chef.
“That’s all you bought?” he said, an amused expression on his face. “Just take them home, we need way more than that.” So I took my bag of ramps home and let them rot in my produce drawer.
In the following years, I would encounter ramps here and there, generally sweet-pickled on a charcuterie plate or grilled. They didn't grow locally, and their season was so short that if you didn't stock up on them all in one shot and preserve them somehow, they were gone. I didn't get them. I asked my current chef what the big deal was.
“They’re tender, mild, garlicky onions.”
“Yeah, but we get these great spring onions and green garlic… isn't that better?”
“They’re fine. But in the spring our guests want ramps.”
“Just because they’re not widely available?”
This is when I realized how stupid ramps are.
I live in Northern California. We have, arguably, the finest produce in the world. There is no shortage of baby leeks, torpedo onions, heirloom garlic, or any other type of allium that grows here, and here’s the kicker: they’re around longer than a couple of weeks! Why order East Coast ramps in twenty pound increments when we could just go to the market and get something just as good, if not better? WHY WEREN’T EAST COASTERS ORDERING SPRING ONIONS FROM US, HUH?
Ramp mania has reached a hysteric fever pitch. There are ramp menus. Ramps with their own hashtags. People gifting jars of pickled ramps to each other. Pieces in the news about how much people love ramps. Once, I saw two people get in a shouting match — neck veins popping in springtime fervor — over the last bag of ramps at the San Francisco Ferry Building.
The best hypothesis I can come up to even begin to understand this is that in the realm of hard-to-procure ingredients, ramps are the great equalizer. They’re cheap, and plenty of people have still never heard of them, so they carry with them a dumb air of exclusivity. Also, it’s nice that Michigan gets to have its own specialty ingredient. But when it comes down to it, for this Californian, they’re just not very interesting.
So the next time you find yourself sipping a martini with a fermented ramp garnish while you eat your ramp pizza and nibble on grilled chicken with ramp chimichurri, just remember: they’re fucking onions. And as the rule goes, for every ramp Instagram you post, you are also required to post a picture of a scallion or a red onion or the bin of elephant garlic at Whole Foods.
Also, elephant garlic? Hold my beer.