A crowd of 6,000 mountaineers and curious tourists braved rain and bellyaches in this former moonshining capital of the great Smokey Mountains yesterday to celebrate spring by eating ramps, the vilest of wild onions, even one of which can be an overdose that turns all but the steeliest of stomachs into miniature zeppelins.
With scores of police making certain the oldtimers did not mix the ramps with illegal white lightning - the traditional accompaniment - and that the more experimental younger generation did not test the plants potency when mixed with burning weed, the crowd ate 80 bushels of the breath-fouling plants. Rock-a-billy star Billy (Crash) Craddock sang a "Ramp Queen," who stuck her tongue out when Rep. Jimmy Quillen (R-Tenn.) offered her a ramp to go with the crown.
The Crosby Ramp Festival, the oldest of the spring rites now held at several Appalachian towns, began in 1954, but mountaineers have been cating the devilish Allium Triccorcum Lilaceace - a wild leek with a small onion for a stem, leaves like lily of the valley, and a smell and impact that makes garlic shy by comparison - ever since they settled the Smokies. Tradition holds that the plants pep up sluggish blood and act as an aphrodisiac.
Rusty Sassafras (M.G.) Roberts, a 76-year-old ramp eater and promoter who sports a Col. Sanders goatee, says ramps held sex life "like any wild plant that's good for your health." He cannot explain, he adds, how love and the smell team up, but he does know the smell can be uniquely offensive. "When I taught school and the kids came in eating ramps, the smell would be so bad, we'd have to turn school out," he said.
That reputation should not deter the ramp from being served in the House Dining Room "if properly prepared," says Rep. Quillen, a rampeater who is the ranking Republican on the House Rules Committee."It would be a welcome change on the menu," He says. Festival officals said President Jimmy Carter "wrote a real nice letter" declining the opportunity to test the ramps on the executive palate. President Harry Truman sampled a ramp at the festival in 1955, but there is no record of its effect on his mettle.
One certainty is that moonshine exasperates ramp's impact. Eva Sexton, who helps the Ruritan Club promote the festival, remembers "When I worked at the A&P back when it had a stove in the rear them fellers from up at Crosby would come in who'd be drinking that liquor they make up there and eat them ramps . . . I's never smelled anything like it when they got next to the fire. The liquor smelled bad enough, but it made that ramp smell come through their pores.It was just awful, smelled just awful."
Ruritan Club members began gathering the ramps above the 3,000-foot level in the Great Smokies three days before the festival. The plants were cleaned and prepared for eating raw or chopped into small pieces for cooking over an open fire with scrambled eggs. The result was the gooey green concoction served yesterday along side 3,500 pounds of barbecued chicken, 400 pounds of fried fatback and an unmeasures amount of pinto beans and corn pone.
Families sat on the wet ground, gulping down the food with the approved sassafras tea beverage as the beauty contestants and musicians did their thing on the stage, most without first sampling the ramps. "I thought a ramp was something you put your car on," reflected rock star turned country singer Craddock, after he retreated from the flock of women seeking his autograph. "I guess I'll eat one before I leave, though," he said. "It might help my voice."
But ramp queen Linda Gail Allman, 21, dressed in a tailored "flowing pink chiffon skirt with a bodice trimmed in sequins," according to her description, was having nothing to do with ramps. "I've heard they stay on you breath for two months," the beauty said. "They offered me one and I said forget it."
The memory of ramp-eating has a particular hold on displaced mountaineers who flocked back to the festival in cars with Ohio and Michigan tags. A promotion 'up North" in 1959 combined with a local audience to produce a crowd of 60,000 people at the Cosby Festival.
The only known attempt to export the essence of ramps backfired a few years ago when the U.S. Postal Service refused to mail copies of The West Virginia Hillbilly, a nostalgic weekly edited by Jim Comstock, who had mixed the oil from ramps with the printer's ink. "Rumor has it that mail clerks and post offices called upon to handle this paper in transit made unkind remarks about the practice," according to a public account.
In addition to the virtues the promoters claim for the ramp, the festival masked the better-known reputation of Cocke County for it's bawdy houses, gambling and trafficking in liquor that has for years stunned even truckdrivers and reporters who are familiar with the sins of the Nevada desert. Thanks to some recent raids of the roadhouses by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, the ramp is currently ahead.