I love my neighbors. I do my best to achieve this in the biblical sense, but in this context, I mean that I love the people who live nearby. Here in rural Free Union, I consider any social engagement in which I don’t have to drive to Charlottesville, as ‘close by.’ I consider my neighbors anyone who lives within three miles. And those neighbors who live within a mile of my home—why, they are right next door.
Our neighbors and I do favors for each other, share some interests, visit periodically and leave each other little gifts. Our neighbor John Loehr, a local attorney who only lives about a mile down our gravel road, will occasionally stop by to leave the odd bit of ethnic food that we’ve enjoyed when having dinner with him and Gwen. We also share a passion for the New York Review of Books. John is extraordinarily kind to my son and daughter-in-law because he admires and supports their farming enterprise. But my favorite gift, arrives in the spring, when John will leave me a jar of pickled ramps.
The ramp is a wild onion that is native to the West Virginia mountains from where John hails. They pop at this time of year at the edges of pine forests. I’ve seen some of the seed catalogs selling ramps for cultivation. Good luck with that. The reliable supply is only found in Virginia’s far western mountain ranges, or in the beautiful state of West Virginia.
John has returned to West Virginia many times to harvest his own ramps, but in recent years, he prefers to buy them from the locals and then return to Free Union to work his pickling magic.
I spoke with John recently about his ramp-hunting methods:
“My home town is New Martinsville, West Virginia, on the Ohio River about 30 miles south of Wheeling. ‘Night of the Hunter’ was filmed there. Charles Manson and Lady Gaga’s mom grew up nearby. Also, the noted Pennsylvania congressman John Murtha (Denise’s hometown PA congressman), was born in New Martinsville.
“I dig ramps occasionally, but mostly I buy them from roadside vendors in season. I have sources near Bartow, Elkins, and Caldwell, WV. A couple of years ago I was driving back from New Martinsville through Elkins. I bought the entire burlap bag of ramps from a young woman on the west side of Elkins, about 25 lbs., so she could go home for the day. When I got to the other side of town, there was another woman selling ramps in a similar bag. It was her sister. She was pregnant, and I bought her ramps, too, so she could go home and rest. I find this kind of acquisition a lot more fun than digging ramps, especially at my age. I also get some ramps from a guy with a produce stand whose location I will not divulge. He has ramps in quantity when nobody else does. The other exceptional thing is, he had a liver transplant at the U.Va. Hospital 28 years ago, and comes to Charlottesville periodically for checkups. I’ve never heard of anybody living that long with a liver transplant. It must be the ramps.”
Someday soon, I hope a jar of these will turn up in my refrigerator. John has been generous enough to share the recipe, followed by my husband’s (another John) recipe for the absolute best use of a ramp: floating in a dry, gin martini.
I’ve heard that some people put vodka in a martini. Um, okay. That’s nice.
John Loehr’s Pickled Ramps
- 2 lb. ramps, cleaned, green leaves trimmed to 1” past white and red parts
- 1 T kosher salt for the pickling brine, plus 1 additional T salt for boiling the ramps
- 1 cup white wine vinegar1 cup brown sugar (or maple syrup)
- 1 tsp. mustard seed
- 1 tsp. pink peppercorns
- 1 tsp. white peppercorns
- 1⁄2 tsp. caraway seed
- 1⁄2 tsp. fennel seed
- 1⁄2 tsp. cumin seeds
- 1 bay leaf
Bring a 4-qt. saucepan of salted water to a boil. Add ramps and cook until crisp-tender, about 30 seconds. Using a slotted spoon, place the ramps in an ice bath. Drain and place in a sterilized 1-qt. glass jars.
Combine 1 T salt, all remaining ingredients, and 1 cup water in a 4-qt. saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat; cook, stirring, until sugar is dissolved, about 2 minutes. Pour mixture over ramps and seal jar with a new, clean canning lid and ring. Let cool to room temperature and then refrigerate, or process for ten minutes in a boiling water bath.
Note: John and I had a bit of a ‘discussion’ about whether the pickled ramps needed to be processed after the canning process. I contend it isn’t necessary—the vinegar and sugar are all that’s needed for preservation. But John says “We’re Pittsburgh immigrants. We process everything by default.” Adding: “if you don’t bother with the processing, don’t sue me if you get sick.”
John Parcell’s Gin Martini
- 3 oz Tanqueray gin
- 1 tsp dry vermouth
- Chilled cocktail glass
Combine the gin and vermouth in a cocktail shaker or jar with a tight-fitting lid. Add three dry (straight from the freezer, not melted at all) ice cubes. Shake vigorously for twenty seconds to chill the drink and add ice crystals. Strain into the chilled glass. Ask Denise if she would like olives, a lemon twist or ramps. If there are ramps in the house, the answer is easy: add three of John Loehr’s ramps and serve.