Monday, May 12, 2014

So why *are* ramps such a big deal?

In my last post I wrote a little bit about ramps, the wild leek which is among the first edibles of spring and is very much the "in" thing among foodies. 

Why are they such a big deal?  They taste good but they're not transformative like saffron or a really good truffle.  If they were on grocery store shelves year-round they'd be just another allium to choose or substitute at will.  Someone could certainly be forgiven for thinking that ramp enthusiasm is just another passing fad, that people like them because a few influential other people like them or, even worse, because so many other people don't know about them.  There's doubtless at least some truth to this school of thought but I think it's also somewhat unfair.

Ramps are popular because they're ephemeral.  Because they have a season. Ramps are here, and then they're gone until next year.  If you were industrious you might have some pickled ramps to last you until the following year but there is no source of fresh ramps once they're gone in June. 

I grew up in Maryland in the 1970's.  This was after canned and frozen fruits and vegetables became ubiquitous but before great fleets of ships and trucks brought fresh produce from all over the world to even low-end grocery stores.  And back then, there was enthusiasm for lots of crops.  In Maryland it was strawberries in the spring and Silver Queen corn in the summer.  

Freshly picked strawberries are as different from that giant plastic red thing as fresh tomatoes are from their grocery store equivalents.   This is not a result of some conspiracy by large growers and packers but rather an artifact of biology.  Strawberries are among those fruits which cease creating sugar as soon as they are picked.  They will "ripen" in the sense that their colors will change, long-chain sugars might break down into shorter ones and the fruit will soften but there's no new sugar.   Combine that with the fact that with the cultivars available back then Maryland strawberries were too soft to ship very far in any event  and the result was a few weeks of the sweetest strawberries imaginable for a tiny price.  You waited all winter for spring strawberries, they came, and then they were gone.  They didn't have an internet back then to make things go "viral," but they did have strawberry festivals, strawberry queens, and all the local chefs had their special strawberry dishes. 

Silver Queen corn was a similar story.  There have been pretty drastic advances in the production of corn cultivars recently so just about everyone has access to fresh sweet corn for most of the second half of the summer.   Not so in the '70s.  Sweet corn would lose as much as half its sugar in just 48 hours after picking.  That meant that there was no such thing as high quality sweet corn from Illinois or California or Mexico; by the time it got to Maryland it wouldn't be sweet any more.  Same with Maryland corn -- you couldn't ship it to Massachusetts or Florida because it wouldn't be special by the time it got there.  So again, for a few precious weeks at the end of the summer Maryland would be flooded with some of the best sweet corn in the world and then it would be gone.

I'm not going to to minimize the undeniable and large benefits of a growing and shipping regime which has made fresh fruit and vegetables available year-round at reasonable prices,  but I think something has been lost when we lost seasons for a lot of foods.  Having a mediocre version available all the time is good nutrition but not necessarily for the soul.  Some of the appreciation we had for the fruit of the land has been lost.  

No comments:

Post a Comment

For reasons I don't understand, third-party cookies must be enabled in order to comment.