Field Notes from the Helvetia Ramp Supper
by Emily Hilliard
The last Friday in April, I drove along the Buckhannon River through the village of Helvetia, West Virginia to the coat of arms-adorned community hall in the center of town. Though I’ve been visiting the Swiss-German community for five years now— first as a tourist, then as a journalist, and now as a folklorist— this was my first time here in the spring. Having previously contended with whiteout blizzards just to make it to the 59-resident town perched in a high mountain valley, I was struck by how lush and alive everything seemed. Spring ephemerals dotted the roadsides, locals were out walking and doing yard work, and the distinctively pungent smell of ramps wafted out from the kitchen of the hall.
Ramp suppers are common in communities across West Virginia in the springtime, often held as fundraisers for local organizations. Here in Helvetia the annual event benefits the Community Hall Association and the Farm Women’s Club. With a place-based history enduring much longer than the current urban chef ramp trend, ramp suppers in the mountain state are a homespun community effort, officially dating back at least 75 years. I’ve eaten my fair share of ramps, but having lived in West Virginia for only six months, I’d never been to a ramp supper, nor witnessed its preparations. My host, Dave Whipp, had prepped me in an email prior to my arrival:
On Friday morning, the menfolk will gather outside the Community Hall to cook about 400 pounds of potatoes in iron kettles over a wood fire, drink beer and homemade wine, and maybe listen to music. The womenfolk will gather in the kitchen and complain about what worthless pieces of excrement the men are. It’s a longstanding tradition!”
Parking outside the hall, I opted, at least initially, to follow Dave’s prescribed gender division, and walked into the kitchen, where I found a group of mostly women (and a few men) washing dishes, making lunch, laying out bags of frozen ramps to defrost, and slicing ham. I grabbed a knife, found a place at the counter, and joined in. I never heard any talk about the “menfolk,” though. Instead, our conversation was lighthearted, focusing mainly on the work at hand, the three toddlers who were there helping their mothers and grandmother, and the merits of a just-sweet cornbread as a counterpoint to the other savory ramp supper fare.
Stepping outside, I found Dave’s description of the scene more accurate. About half a dozen men were gathered around an open campfire, talking through the steps to properly cook potatoes while they stirred them in two giant kettles and sipped wine and Bud Light. Dave handed me a plastic cup of his homemade Cabernet Sauvignon out of a bottle labeled “Youthful Indiscretions.” It was 10:30 a.m. and I was technically on the clock, but acutely aware that I had crossed lines into “menfolk” territory and, otherwise wanting to honor tradition, I accepted.
When the first batch of potatoes had boiled, two men drained the water and dumped the golden, tender potatoes on a large blue tarp lying on the ground. Dave picked up one of the smaller potatoes, holding it in his hands and biting it like an apple, and I followed suit. One man remarked on my snack in part-jab, part approval, “She’s eating a potato—a good country girl!” Perhaps intuiting that I, the niece of an Indiana potato farmer, was more comfortable with taters than ramps, he pulled a two-pronged fork from the back of an ATV serving as a makeshift bar and wood pile and handed it to me. “Looks like you know your potatoes—I now appoint you official potato tester,” he said.
Helvetia’s ramp supper was started between 1946 and 1948 (Helvetia native Ernest Hofer, who has been working at the supper for at least 40 years, wasn’t sure of the exact date). The event requires a significant time and labor commitment from a core group of workers, which can be taxing on a small town population stretched thin across multiple volunteer roles. For weeks leading up to the supper, locals, including 4-H kids, come to help clean and process ramps. 16-year old Morgan Rice remembers,
You’d come down after school every day for weeks to clean ramps. Every day for weeks. And you’d go to school and be like, ‘I’m really sorry that I smell like ramps but it is in my fingers. It is in my fingerprints.’”
Then there’s the 400 pounds of potatoes to boil, peel, and fry, 300 pounds of ham to cut, Navy beans to sort, soak, and cook, and a variety of cookies, cakes, and pies to be baked by the Farm Women. There’s also the sourcing of the food and advertising, as well as the day of tasks—ticket sales, table setting, serving, dishwashing, and the after-dinner square dance to host, play, and call.
After dwindling turnout and low profits in years prior, the 2015 ramp supper almost didn’t happen. That was until Morgan started a petition, “I sent an email to almost every person in Helvetia saying ‘the younger population of Helvetia does not want to get rid of the ramp dinner because of its importance to us and because it’s such a staple to our community.’ The ramp dinner is a big part of my life and Helvetia’s life, really if you think about it.” Morgan’s plea earned the support of two other members of the Farm Women’s Club, Cecilia Smith and Sharon Rollins, who decided to bolster their efforts with additional advertising and reorganization and continue the supper on a year-by-year basis. Despite unseasonably cold temperatures and rain, the 2015 event was successful, bringing in the visitors needed to make the fundraiser worthwhile.
But the value of the ramp supper for Helvetia is not just monetary. For Cecilia Smith, the event functions as a reaffirmation of community after a long winter and an engagement with local and familial history. “The ramp supper is a part of our heritage, and we’ve lost too much of our heritage. We need to hold on to as much as we can.” One way that Smith does that is by baking her family’s cake recipes and sharing them on the dessert table at the ramp supper. “I brought two cakes today— one is a German Apple Cake, which I think was my grandma’s recipe, but I know has been in the family for umpteen years, and the other one is Molasses Crumb Cake, which my dad made when I was little.” These recipes themselves, and the communal work involved with the ramp supper, are a means of preserving memory through the act of cooking and eating, a process which incites the phrase popularized by food preservationist Poppy Tooker— “eat it to save it.”
The spring ramp suppers also demonstrate a close community connection to the land and its offerings. In folklorist Mary Hufford’s essay, “Ramps, Biodiversity, and the Integrity of the Mountains” about the ramp supper in Drew’s Creek, West Virginia, she writes, “the traditional knowledge that sustains this annual round of harvesting is anchored in a people’s landscape inscribed all over the mountains, a literary work writ large.” Remembering her childhood growing up outside of Charleston, Sharon Rollins recounted, “Now we used to go ramp digging when I was a kid. My birthday dinner was always held by the creek while we were cooking ramps and it was done over an open campfire. So my family—my uncle and his family and my mom and my family, we’d go find a ramp patch. And let me tell you—they are always straight up a hill. I don’t know how many hills that I have rolled down. Even though I just started doing ramps here, as a teenager, I knew ramps.”
In the past, Ernest Hofer donated 10 bushels of locally-dug ramps to the event. Now, the ramps are purchased from a digger and vendor in a neighboring county. Hofer said,
It’s hard to find ramps because people aren’t gonna tell you where their ramp patch is! That’s a well-kept secret, and I’m not gonna tell you where mine’s at!
And a lot of the property has been closed to ramp digging due to the lumber company’s leasing the property, which has hurt the ramp suppers a lot. So they just can’t dig ‘em.” As Hufford relays in her essay, changes in the landscape and land ownership due to industry and other factors present barriers to the practice and survival of traditional knowledge and cultural heritage. Relatedly, outmigration, particularly of young people, is a significant issue in rural communities in West Virginia. Smith wondered if the low turnout at the ramp supper in recent years was due to a generational shift. “It seems like it’s more the older people that are coming, we don’t have that many of the younger people coming to it,” she said. “There’s nothing to keep them here so they’re moving away and they lose that background.” Rollins concurred saying, “I don’t know if it’s so much of the competing events or whether young people don’t know ramps like some of the older people do like my dad’s generation.”
Though rain was threatening on Saturday afternoon, by the opening of the doors at 2pm, a line had formed, snaking through the upstairs for the hall down the community hall front steps into the lawn. As I waited my turn, I overheard a lot of ramp talk—discussion of other ramp suppers and the “King of Stink website” which serves as an online ramp resource in the region, and sharing of family memories of the wild leeks. “My one grandfather hated ramps, but my other grandfather loved them,” one attendee told his friends. “He’d spend hours digging and cleaning them and even one time tried to wash them in an old washing machine.” As I looked around the hall, I wondered if Cecilia Smith was right—most of those in line were of an older set, though there were a few families with young children who had made the trip.
After my plate was loaded with sautéed ramps, ham, fried potatoes, soup beans, and cornbread by Cecilia, Morgan, and other buffet line servers, I took a seat at one of the long wooden tables with strangers. As we passed around the applesauce and coleslaw bowls we introduced ourselves. The older couple next to me, who live the next county over, said that they attend multiple ramp suppers in the springtime. An older gentleman who grew up in West Virginia, but now lives in Charlottesville, Virginia made the 3 and a half hour drive with his son-in-law, who told me, “He’s always talked about ramp suppers. So we finally decided to come back for one.”
I think about all the ramps they could have eaten at any number of restaurants in Charlottesville— in morel and lemon risottos, ramp bloody marys, or in an raw oyster remoulade— but instead they drove the 360 miles round trip to eat them from a Styrofoam plate in the basement of a community hall with a few hundred strangers. I think about the poetry of Morgan’s claim that ramps were in her fingerprints and I consider what else is there too— the memory and land and ritual—that’s held in her ramp fingerprints and the fingerprint of Helvetia.
Emily Hilliard is the West Virginia state folklorist at the West Virginia Humanities Council. She’s working on a year-long oral history project for the Southern Foodways Alliance, documenting the foodways of Helvetia, West Virginia. She previously wrote about Helvetia’s Hutte Restaurant for the SFA blog.