He is revered by chefs and beloved by Southern food enthusiasts for Benton’s Smoky Mountain Country Hams. But, after going far into the East Tennessee and North Carolina mountains together every spring on our annual ramp expedition, I know there’s more to Allan Benton than his deeply smoked bacon and hams.
We piled into Benton’s worn pickup at his home in Madisonville, Tennessee, with a few crumpled plastic grocery bags in our pockets, and a couple of pickaxes and an oversized cast-iron pan tossed in the back. We were giddy, like two young kids, as we wound through sweeping North Carolina vistas, eager to begin our ramp adventure and set up camp to cook and enjoy the new crop of the short-season wild onions.
Ramps have gained in popularity in recent years, popping up as a hot-ticket item in farmers markets for just a few weeks from mid-April through early May. However, Benton has been ramp tramping for more than four decades, taught by a neighbor whose family hunted and cooked ramps for generations.
He has been careful to pass on the native wisdom with anyone he takes to hunt ramps: “If you find a dozen in one spot, only harvest four or five. That way, we are assured they will be here each year.”
Benton likes to say that, after a ramp tramp, you are so hungry, you will eat a can of pork and beans. All kidding aside, though, when ramp hunting with Benton, no cans are involved.
We fired up our cast-iron in a campsite near a cold-water creek, and fried up our just plucked ramps with bacon, country ham and freshly washed russet potatoes.
There is a ritual to our cooking. Strips of Benton’s bacon are laid, lattice-like, in the hot skillet to cook evenly and render out the smoke-flavored fat. Peeled and hand-cut potatoes are added. To finish, piles of roughly chopped ramp leaves and stems are scattered on top, to wilt and perfume the potatoes with their pungent, bright flavor.
“Ramps add another dimension to any dish, especially a vegetable dish,” Benton said.
With our plates full, and wedges of cornbread piled on top, we settled into folding chairs to enjoy our feast.
After our annual day of foraging, cooking and conversation, our souls always are nourished. I am amazed how this friendship has been enriched by one of nature’s most simple foods.
Where to purchase ramps: Look for ramps at the Peachtree Road, Marietta Square and Buford Highway farmers markets, Piedmont Park Conservancy’s Green Market, Candler Park Market, Grant Park Market and Coosemans Atlanta at the Atlanta State Farmers Market in Forest Park. Supplies may vary week to week.
Ramp Bacon Potato Salad
This potato salad takes a simple approach to making the popular side dish. The potatoes are fried quickly in a skillet with roughly chopped ramps, then dressed in an easy buttermilk lemon dressing.
Easy Ramp Butter
Ramp butter is one of the simplest ways to cook with and enjoy ramps. It takes about 10 minutes to prepare, and adds bright, sharp flavor to main and side dishes, from fish and steak to rice and sauteed vegetables.
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