On the hunt for an elusive quarry…

I have been known to drive four hours on the quest for a great meal. I collect photos of myself posing with various chefs, including Anthony Bourdain and Pierre Gangaire. My dad was a professional cook in San Diego, plus I’m Chinese-American to boot, which means that food is very important to me. Important enough that I get obsessed when it comes to tasting the new and exquisite. Over the course of my lifetime, I’ve eaten sea cucumbers and “thousand-year” eggs and fruit bats (cooked in coconut on the island of Palau).

Some years ago, I learned about “ramps,” otherwise known as wild leeks. I’d sampled them in a sauce in a local restaurant, and was intrigued by their strong, garlicky flavor. But because they are an ephemeral crop, harvested only by foragers, I didn’t have a way to purchase them either in the grocery store or in my local farmer’s market. Then they got more and more press, and were recently trumpeted in Time Magazine as the “new arugula” for foodies.

Which meant I just had to find a source for them.

Unfortunately, everyone else is looking for them too. Although wild ramps grow throughout the eastern US, all the way up to Canada, it seems you just can’t get them in your local grocery store. You have to know someone who knows the secret spot in the woods to find them. People guard their locations because they’re so valuable. I live in Maine, and you’d think I’d know one of those secret spots, but I don’t. I’ve never seen them growing in the wild, and even if I had, I wasn’t sure I’d recognize them.

Last week, I went to visit my son, who lives near Ithaca, NY. For weeks I’d been obsessing about ramps. I’d talked constantly about them and my husband was sick of hearing about it. Everywhere we went, I insisted on hiking into the woods looking for them — although I didn’t really know what they looked like. I just knew I wanted to find them.

When we got to Ithaca, the first thing I did after hugging my son and daughter-in-law was to check out their backyard. After all, they lived in just the sort of place where ramps would grow: a wet and forest-y area. I found lots of interesting plants including pretty little trout lillies:

and American mandrake

and even a whole forest floor of trillium:

You’d think these wonders alone would have made me happy. But no, I needed to locate my quarry. I was determined to find wild leeks, but I began to wonder if I’d ever find them. Then, during an afternoon touring a farm with my son’s family members, I mentioned my obsession. And lo and behold, my daughter-in-law’s cousin piped up: “I just dug some up for dinner a few days ago. They’re right behind my house.”

Half an hour later, she led me into the muddy woods and showed me a whole forest floor of them. She broke off a stalk and let me sniff their delicious garlicky, oniony flavor.

They look quite ordinary, don’t they? But they’re worth gold when it comes to a chef’s kitchen!

Now that I’ve seen them, and know what they look like, I’ll be hunting down my own secret source in Maine.

3 replies
  1. Janet Marie
    Janet Marie says:

    Ah, yes, seen those around and about (I live way, way, way up north in Maine, Acadian country) and I wasn’t sure if you were talking about fiddleheads or not. Have you tried Fiddleheads? This could be the next thing to try on your list if you haven’t

  2. joe bernstein
    joe bernstein says:

    Down the street from my house about a mile is a restaurant that serves “thousand year eggs”in congee.
    They have dim sum every weekend and the clientele is heavily Chinese although the immediate area has relatively few residents of Chinese background.
    They have vegetables I’ve never seen anywhere else.At least not in Rhode Island.
    You can find a surprising number of NY license plates in their lot,which tells me something because there is no dearth of great dim sum places in NY.

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