My friends Russell and Carol left Seattle several years ago when Russ, a Blake scholar and artist, got a teaching gig at Northern Michigan University. Carol, also an artist, had been a cook at the first good restaurant I ever ate at in Seattle, the Dahlia Lounge. If you guessed that I visited their home in Marquette because I missed Carol’s food, you wouldn’t be far off. But mostly I miss the banter with these two old friends and this trip had been a long time coming.
Now that I’ve been to the Northern Woods of Michigan, all I can say is I’m going back. I fell hard for the place, with its woods, lakes, and friendly people.
My approach to Marquette on the Upper Peninsula was less than encouraging: fog, drizzle, temps in the forties. Might as well have been back in Seattle! But over a long weekend the state slowly and quietly began to reveal its charms to me. It must be a magical place to strap on the cross-country boards in winter. In spring, after a hard, snow-filled winter, the reawakening of the woods is palpable in a way that nearly overwhelms the senses. Warblers singing, wildflowers blooming, all sorts of trees leafing out against the backdrop of an azure sky.
Those hardwood forests that seem to go on forever are a big part of what attracts me to Michigan. I grew up with hardwoods in New England. Oak, maple, birch, and so on. But there’s also a long list of trees I never learned as a kid, and they’re still a chore to identify now: beech, gum, hornbeam, hickory, and many more. And beneath the trees grows a crazy-quilt of greenery. I thought we had a monopoly on trilliums here in the Pacific Northwest until stepping foot on Michigan soil. There were Dutchman’s breeches and jack-in-the-pulpits and trout lilies (pictured), plus scores of other plants I didn’t recognize. Wild raspberry everywhere. And perhaps more ubiquitous than any other plant: wild leeks—a native allium sometimes known by the name ramp (Allium tricoccum). Everywhere you looked, you saw this wild gourmet delicacy, growing in enormous patches that carpeted the woods. You smelled them, too.
The ramps appear as the hardwood forests open their leaves and the first neo-tropical warblers arrive with their splashes of unlikely color and insistent songs. Up and down the Appalachian Mountains, small rural communities honor this edible plant that heralds spring with festivals and feasts, such as the Feast of the Ramson in Richwood, West Virginia, where ramp culture reaches its zenith. In Northern Michigan, the ramp almost seems taken for granted, so common is it—and the locals are busy gearing up for morels anyway.
Hey, no problem. I’ll pick a few of your ramps. They’re a novelty for me since they don’t grow west of the Great Plains. The picking is easy, if a bit tedious. The ramp bulbs are fairly shallow, though firmly rooted. After a soil-loosening rainstorm is a good time to go picking. You can use a shovel or iron to further loosen the dirt or even slide a finger down the stalk and into the ground. Ramps of good cooking size can be snapped by hand where the roots meet the bulb.
Once you get your catch home, wash the ramps under a tap and slide the outer membrane off the bulb. This will remove most of the dirt. Slice off dirt-encrusted roots with a paring knife.
As for flavor, you often hear that ramps are like a cross between garlic and onions, but I prefer to think of them as hillbilly leeks with an earthy twang. Like cultivated leeks, you’re wise to use the white and green parts in different ways. Generally speaking, the white bulbs are best chopped and sauteed until at least translucent (like scallion bulbs) while the green leaves can be chopped and added to a dish near the end and cooked down (like spinach). We ate ramps all kinds of ways: simply chopped and sauteed over wild whitefish fillets; with eggs; in a soup of cherrystone clams, vegetables, and chicken stock. We ate ramps like we would never eat them again—which was true, in a way, for me…excepting that batch I smuggled onto the plane… [to be continued]