RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
The town of Richwood in West Virginia once thrived on lumber and coal. As those industries fell on hard times, so did the town. Every spring, though, this struggling Appalachian community celebrates its abundance of wild ramps. Those are wild greens, sometimes known as wild leeks. The town that calls itself the World's Ramp Capital hosts an annual festival that locals call the Ramp Feed.
Reporter Roxy Todd of Allegheny Mountain Radio attended this year's event, and sent us a postcard.
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ROXY TODD, BYLINE: The air is saturated with the smell of ramps - a pungent, garlicky, peppery smell, so strong that it eclipses almost everything in the room. There's also an aroma of bacon. The ramps have been fried in bacon grease, and are served with brown beans and ham. A local songwriter, John Wyatt, is playing his Richwood Ramp song for the hundreds of people waiting in line for their meal.
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JOHN WYATT: (Singing) And the ramps began to grow in the mountains, then you'll know that it's springtime again.
TODD: Ramps are the first wild foods that appear in the forest each spring. The yearly tradition of eating ramps symbolizes the renewal, hope and vigor of spring.
The festival also marks a return for many Richwood natives. Dana Johnson moved to Alabama, but he comes home for the festival each spring to make sure he gets his dose of ramps.
DANA JOHNSON: They are considered a spring tonic. They're good for you.
TODD: Many people like Johnson have left Richwood to find jobs or open new businesses out of state. Since 1980, the town has lost more than 40 percent of its population, and a third of the remaining 2,000 or so residents are living in poverty. The Ramp Feed is one of the few moments in the year when this depressed small town feels like a thriving community.
Out-of-towners also come to the festival, like Kerry Comisky from East Hampton, Connecticut.
KERRY COMISKY: This is my first time tasting ramps and my first time to the ramp festival, and I plan to come back every year.
JOHNSON: With her tanned face, Comisky is in hiking books as she sits with her husband and their two friends at a local restaurant. She lists the purchases that she's made at the festival: a handmade wooden table and a wooden coffee grinder, and fresh ramps, of course. She bought these from the Four Seasons Outfitters store, located along the two-lane highway into town.
TODD: The owner, Bruce Donaldson, is also the largest ramp seller in Richwood. He ships about 20,000 pounds of ramps each year to buyers all over the U.S.
BRUCE DONALDSON: My men, the men that work for me, are basically laid off in the wintertime. A lot of them's in the logging industry. A lot of them transfers to the coal fields, and they'll work a month. They'll be laid off. Sometimes they'll have to go 100 miles to find another job. Like to buy some ramps?
TODD: People are camped out by the side of the road, hawking ramps that they've harvested. Eleven-year-old Tyler McCune is out with his stepfather and his uncles, selling the wild leeks for $4 a pound. He wears faded jeans and a navy blue T-shirt, and his blue eyes squint in the sun.
TYLER MCCLUNE: He taught me how to dig ramps. My uncle, he taught me and my grandpa and my stepdad.
TODD: Tyler's grandfather and stepdad used to work in the sawmills. His grandfather is now disabled, and his stepdad's out of work. But they still dig ramps, each spring, as a family. Some people her worry that ramps are being over-harvested, and there's debate over how much of a threat that is.
Tyler McCune says his grandfather taught him how to harvest the right way, without being, as he calls it, an over-picker.
MCCLUNE: Over-pickers. Yeah, they like dig every ramp they see. See, you can't do that here. I mean, you can dig a lot of ramps, but you can at least leave some roots behind. That way, they'll grow. And we'll be able to keep having this good ramp feed here in Richwood everybody enjoys. I enjoy it.
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TODD: At the end of the one-day festival, organizers estimate the crowds have consumed about 1,700 pounds of wild ramps. The local chamber of commerce has raised about 3 to $4,000. The money will help the city remove a few of the abandoned, derelict buildings and add more art and historic photos to the vacant storefronts in downtown Richwood.
For NPR News, I'm Roxy Todd.
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