When practicing a traditional homesteading lifestyle, hunting and gathering become important supporting practices to diversify your basic food menu. The biological diversity and richness of the Appalachian Forest habitat makes it easy to supplement your diet by harvesting the natural bounty of the land. Many of the earliest settlers in the great Appalachian wilderness discovered they could survive almost entirely by hunting and gathering, until resident population levels and outside demand for the natural resources that sustained the native flora and fauna began to exceed the limits of the forest’s ability to support them. Even today, many multi-generational West Virginians still honor and preserve their heritage and traditions by hunting, fishing, and collecting nuts, berries, roots, mushrooms, and other native plants that still abound in our recovering forests.
Although we lived as traditionally as we could, I never learned to hunt for wild game for several reasons. First of all, wild game, particularly deer, in my area of New Hampshire had been hunted to their lowest population levels during my childhood years (1962-1980). The resulting decline in hunting as a sport or survival practice that occurred over the years has allowed game animals to recover, but that recovery occurred during the years I was living and working in the modern society when I simply had no need or incentive to learn how to hunt.
Secondly, we had no need to hunt for meat. We had a ready supply of high protein meat from all the cows we owned that had grown too old to produce milk. Although we were never told what happened to the cows we retired or that died, I never recall having to bury a cow—which would have been a labor-intensive job that could not be casually overlooked. Instead, we periodically obtained huge quantities of fresh steak, hamburger, and other cuts of cow meat from a local butcher in Claremont that I believe my adoptive father obtained as payment for delivering cows to him for slaughter. Since we kept a chest freezer full of fresh meat in the back hall of our farmhouse, we never had much of an incentive to hunt for more.
Finally, hunting for game in the generally depleted woods that surrounded our farm would have required a huge time commitment that we simply couldn’t dedicate due to the constant work demands of managing our farm operation. For all these reasons, we never hunted for game. We did occasionally fish in the Connecticut River and Ox Brook that bordered our farm, but we never ate the fish. The local rivers at that time were declared to be contaminated, so we couldn’t eat the fish we caught. We simply placed them in a bucket of water and dumped them in our ponds to help control the mosquito population. About the only hunting and gathering we were able to do was to collect edible berries and wild plants (including strawberries, raspberries, and dandelions), which we would occasionally pick during my earliest childhood years.
When we moved to West Virginia in 2008, we began collecting nuts from the black walnut and shagbark hickory trees that surround our farm property. I documented those efforts in Post 49, “Harvesting the Bounty of the Land,” which appeared in my 2019 farm book, Country Life at Peeper Pond Farm. We also learned to fish for trout in the Smoke Hole Canyon, but we later decided we didn’t have much of an appetite for the fish we caught. We have also harvested wild raspberries and wineberries in our local area, which we have used to make jelly. Now we are learning how to find and harvest ramps.
Ramps were a staple of the early pioneers who settled our area more than 200 years ago. The early settlers found wild ramps to be an early spring source of natural vitamins and minerals to revive the body after a long, hard winter diet of preserved foods. Ramps are a form of wild leak or garlic that have a very strong onion/garlic odor. The odor is so strong that it often results in a distinct and pungent body odor in those who eat large quantities of them. For that reason, everyone in the family had to eat them at the same time, so that they wouldn’t notice and object to the odor from those who had.
Ramps tend to grow in dense forested areas with deep, rich, moist soil. They also tend to grow in large clusters. They begin to appear very early in the spring, which made them one of the first edible plants to harvest. They produce long, broad, pointed leaves that resemble those of an Iris. The very base of the leaves can appear to have a burgundy tint. Eventually, the plant produces a shoot that flowers during the summer months. Beneath the ground, the plant produces a white oval bulb that has the most intense garlic odor of the plant. Care must be taken when digging ramps out of the ground. Since ramps can grow around obstacles in the soil, such as rocks and roots, the bulbs may not be directly beneath the base of the plant. I was invited to join Jeff Barger and his father and uncle on a May 11 ramp harvest to a favored site just above the Allegheny Front on Mount Storm. There we found a vast sea of wild ramps covering more than 25,000 square feet of the forest floor. We collected at least eight plastic grocery bags full of ramps that morning, and you couldn’t even tell that we had been there.
Both the bulbs and the leaves are edible and can be used to prepare a wide variety of dishes, from a “mess of greens” to garlic potatoes, scrambled eggs and a variety of soups. They are often served with bacon as a breakfast meal. They can be used in place of garlic as a flavor accent to season many prepared foods. I have even found ramp jelly being sold in local stores. The town of Richwood, WV has a major annual festival to celebrate ramps and even bills itself as the “Ramp Capital of the World.” Jeff and his wife, Amanda, are planning a ramp feast and bluegrass sing-along at the end of the month, which we have been invited to attend. We hope we can join them to taste the homemade dishes that they will prepare—a feast that has been treasured and enjoyed for generations in our region. Just don’t be eager to visit us for a few days following the meal.