A Childhood Spent Searching…for Wild Edibles
TAPE DURATION – 3:10
HOST INTRO: Spring has arrived, and for our reporter Sarah Gibson, that means remembering a special food from her childhood.
In Vermont, where I’m from, the joke is there are 5 seasons: summer, fall, winter, spring, and mud. For some of us, right about now, there’s a sixth: ramp season. Ramps are wild onions that look like scallions, with purple stems and neon green leaves you can spot fifty feet away. They’re tender and sweet, perfect sautéed in butter.
When I was a kid, we would pull on our mudboots and head out with a paring knife to my dad’s secret ramp spot. I’m pretty sure it was on the property of some weekender snob from New York City. In other words: it was open for trespass. We’d park at the bottom of the road so neighbors wouldn’t recognize our car—the fear, of course, was that they would return the next day, follow our muddy tracks, and harvest the remaining ramps for themselves.
Ramps take about six years to mature – they’re easily over-harvested. You have to restrain yourself; you have to guard your secret so it won’t get spoiled. This attitude is quintessentially Vermont– it’s part Puritan, part Redneck, part Back-to-the-Lander. It’s—who I am.
My parents aren’t from Vermont, but they come from rural stock – they liked the frugal self-reliance of Vermonters and the idea of raising a family in a town of one thousand people and zero stoplights. The closest city has 16,000 people. The whole state has 600,000, plus 4 million acres of forest, and a chain of mountains that runs up to Canada.
When you’re raised in a town like mine, in a privileged family like mine, the sacrifices are obvious: hours to get to a good doctor and to orchestra rehearsal, battles with struggling schools, and a lurking narrow-mindedness that veers into bigotry. But here’s the payoff: we know how to grow food. We can read the sky for incoming storms. We drive stick-shift; we swim in spring-fed lakes; when we point to a mountain, we know its name and what the vista looks like from its summit.
And then there’s the people – we know each other’s business, for better, and for worse. The families that have been there for centuries fight with newcomers like my parents – over taxes and land use, but we depend on each other if there’s a fire, or a blizzard, or a death. When a neighbor dies, hundreds gather at the town hall, setting aside our grudges and telling stories about the person we’ve lost. Then, we feast on home-cooked dishes.
I moved to New York City last summer. And last fall’s election illuminated our country’s rural/urban divide. Even when I don’t agree with them, I have some empathy towards rural Americans who get righteous about tradition and belonging. But the longer I stay in New York, the more I like it. And the less I understand what it mean to be rural. I’m scared I’m becoming more like those city snobs whose land we trespassed than like my parents, who love my provincial home and call that a good life.
I called my mom a few days ago: “They’re selling ramps at the farmers’ markets here!” Her response? “Ew,” She’s worried that the ramps grew in suburban, polluted soil. She promised once my dad goes out for a harvest, she’ll clean the ramps and send them to me. I’m waiting for that smelly, strangely-shaped package to arrive at my apartment. I’ll hold it to my nose, I’ll breath it in, and I’ll be home.
HOST OUTRO: When she’s not reporting a story, Sarah is demanding samples of Vermont cheese in the dairy section of Zabar’s.