• Posted by Karen Dill on April 6th, 2009, 9:24 AM

    Photo by Brett Emerson

    It is in April that the wild things emerge. Bears crawl from their dens; baby wolves are born while their parents howl at the moon; and mysteriously tender green shoots climb bravely from the ground. To the inexperienced eye, the tiny plants may just look like weeds, but to my mountain-bred father, they were supper. And nothing tasted better than a mess of those wild greens cooked up over a wood stove on a chilly spring evening.

    My father would head into the woods on clear April mornings and return with all matter of strange wild plants. In the dark hollows and beside mountain streams, there were secret caches of edible plants that had no doubt sustained his family through the years of his poverty stricken childhood. He always went alone and was as secretive about the location of his wild plant beds as a fisherman is about his favorite fishing hole.  

    On these treks, my father carried an old burlap sack (he called it his poke) thrown over his shoulder and returned with a collection of ramps, creasy greens, fiddlehead ferns, poke salat, dock, and other greens lacking any name. A few strange mushrooms emerged from the sack, too, looking like space aliens. I kept a wide berth from them but my father ate them with relish and never suffered even a hint of indigestion.

    The first prize from the poke to be cooked was the ramps—baked in meatloaf, scrambled in eggs with bacon, fried with potatoes (my favorite), and boiled up with cabbage.  But those innocent little onions, eaten raw, turned mean the next day when your breath resembled a dragon’s after a binge of cigarettes and cheap beer.  “Never,” my mother said over and over again, “eat those nasty things ‘til they’ve been cooked!”

    One Sunday afternoon in April, a stranger came by to purchase some ramps (and a jar from the back of my father’s panel truck). My father warned him to go easy on both purchases as they could cause a man some problems the next day. “Only ‘real mountaineers’ can eat ramps raw and you’d sure better cook yours.”
    That’s was all I needed to hear, young as I was (age, 8 ) I knew the supreme compliment from my father was to be a ‘real mountaineer.’  So I snatched up a ramp, then four more, and chewed and swallowed them like an old timer. My father and the stranger were duly impressed.

    My mother, however, was not. Despite brushing my teeth five times with baking soda and chewing horehound candy, the smell of the devious little ramps reigned.  My mother told me to stay home from school. My father grunted in disdain at that idea and, wanting to be a tough little mountain girl, I headed down the dirt road to the school bus.

    In class, I was immediately ratted out by one of the Inman kids. “She stinks.” Mrs. Hunter took one whiff and sent me to the corner of the room to complete my schoolwork. I didn’t mind working alone during class, but I hated being sent to the “ramp table” at lunchtime.

    The ramp table at Bethel Elementary School was legendary. It was there that children who had eaten ramps sat to keep the non-ramp eaters from losing their lunch. Eating ramps in April was a common occurrence. We all knew the school’s rule:  come with “ramp breath” and you’ll get sent home. Like so many administrative edicts, this one was useless because most of the parents—especially the ramp-eating ones—didn’t have cars, much less telephones.

    As my classmates giggled from across the lunchroom, I surveyed my new ramp-friends. I was relieved to see a boy from my second grade class as well as his brothers, his sisters, and a couple of rough high school boys who all seemed to be regulars at that table. My classmate, Billy Crowe, was a shy Cherokee boy whose father logged up at Sunburst for a living. I had seen their small frame house by the river and wondered how his whole family could fit in that tiny shack.

    In the fall of that same school year, Billy had a “fit.” No one knew why, but it all started when Billy threw a chair across the room. Two teachers rushed to pin him down while another ran for the principal. When Mr. Hunter arrived, he calmed Billy down and mumbled to the teachers about “them wild Injun kids.”

    Billy’s “fit” didn’t frighten me, though. I’d seen worse at home when my father had one of his big fits and threw more than a small school chair across the room. But I do remember the wild anger and fear that danced in Billy’s eyes. Although I didn’t know the words then, I understood Billy’s humiliation, his bewilderment. For who among us has not experienced moments of wild and furious fear?

    So on that April day at the ramp table, Billy and I were pariahs, outcasts, as were the others at the table. Between eager forkfuls of chicken pot pie, we began to smile at each other, taking some comfort in being together—if smelly.

    Years later, after my memories of ramps and Billy had long since faded, I returned from living abroad and started teaching in the Cherokee school system. And, on my first day of school in the fall of 1987, I ran into a Billy’s older brother, Eddie Crowe. He told me that, in the 1970s, when he was 16, Billy had been killed in a car accident while riding his bicycle less than a mile from Bethel Elementary School.

    *****

    This April, I am hosting a “wild green” dinner—featuring ramps provided by Mickie and Peewee Crowe, cousins of Eddie and Billy. Sochan, called green-headed coneflower by non-Indians, is also popular here in the spring and will be delivered by my friends, Fern and Soup Saunooke. Wild greens are hard to come by these days unless, like my father, you know their secret hiding places or, in my case now, you know the right people. The meal will be cooked at my house in Webster and taken to Cherokee, for the friends who have contributed the gifts of wild ramps and greens. If the evening is nice, perhaps we’ll haul the food to a picnic table on the Oconafultee River.

    The main dish is a sochan strudel—with goat cheese, fresh dill, parsley, green onions and leeks—topped with wild local mushrooms (from the grocery store, I still don’t trust those alien shapes from local totes). Branch lettuce, also called wild lettuce, grows along creek banks. When my father brought it home in his poke, we ate it raw tossed with green onions and wilted with bacon grease. I’ll be skipping the bacon grease this year and will dress the leaves with spring herb vinaigrette. If I can locate some young fiddleheads (which are blanched and then grilled) or dandelion greens, I’ll throw them in the mix as well.

    As for the ramps, some will be grilled over charcoal for a soup. The others will be used in a traditional ramp ‘n tater dish and some buttermilk biscuits. As I prepare and enjoy this meal, I’ll be reminded of the wild and wonderful dishes of my childhood, the ramp table and the connection that I felt there with my Cherokee friends. I’ll remember that, sometimes, we travel full circle. But I’ll resist the urge to sample the little devils raw.

    Karen Dill lives in Webster, North Carolina, which is located in the Smoky Mountains near the town of Sylva.

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