Ruritan Club member Coy Lee Harris stirs up a pan of fried potatoes and ramps, the Ramp Festival's signature dish. (Photos by Max Hrenda/Johnson City Press)
FLAG POND — This weekend, residents of Flag Pond may have bore witness to the area’s only event in which strong odors and shedding tears aren’t unusual.
On Saturday, the Unicoi County community celebrated its 29th annual Ramp Festival, which celebrates both the community itself and the ramp, one of the region’s more abundant naturally growing foods.
The festival, orchestrated by the Flag Pond Ruritan Club, was the brainchild of the club’s vice president, Charles Harris, in 1985. Harris said the Ramp Festival was his answer to the question of how to raise money for the Flag Pond community.
“We were looking for something to do in the spring to have a fundraiser, and I just suggested we have a ramp-and-potato soup bean dinner,” Harris said. “It has been going on ever since.”
Tickets this year sold for $8, and all proceeds went to the South Side Volunteer Fire Department and Rescue Squad. When the festival concluded at 5:30 p.m., Ruritan Club member and Unicoi County Circuit Court Clerk Darren Shelton said 725 tickets had been sold, despite a rainy start to the day.
“Even though it rained, we still had a high turnout,” Shelton said. “We were very pleased with the outcome.”
Although this year’s festival didn’t boast its highest turnout, for Harris, the event’s attendance has, over the years, continued to surprise him.
“When I thought of it, I never realized it would get this big,” Harris said. “I guess it’s just that ramps have been getting more popular than they used to be.”
Before the festival, members of the Ruritan Club took to the nearby mountains and harvested more than 40 pounds of ramps to cook during the festival. According to volunteer Eddie Farmer, the time-tested cooking method is for the ramps to be chopped and fried with diced potatoes in bacon grease.
“We’ve had 29 years of practice,” Farmer said. “And that doesn’t include the time we spent camping in the mountains, where we learned to do this in the first place.”
Despite those years of refining the cooking method, there are others, according to Ruritan Club treasurer Edgar Rice, who prefer their ramps in their natural state.
“They have some raw ones if you happen to want one,” Rice said. “But when you eat a raw one, they’ll smell it on you for three or four days.”
For those who didn’t prefer ramps, raw or otherwise, grilled burgers and hot dogs were offered as alternatives. While there was an array of dining choices, those who didn’t want anything to eat still had an option for entertainment in the form of a series of live musical performances from local bluegrass bands like the Unicoi County High School Bluegrass Band and the Erwin-based Spivey Mountain Boys.
Between the music and the food, one of the festival’s first-time visitors said he was thoroughly entertained. Jesse Gutierrez said he learned about the festival after he moved to Flag Pond — his wife’s hometown — two years ago from his native Flint, Michigan.
“My wife’s family, they’re all into bringing up and eating ramps,” Gutierrez said. “I’ve been hearing for years about the festival, but I haven’t had a chance to come. This occasion, I came, and it was just a great festival.”
Should Gutierrez return to future festivals, he could experience what Rice said was one of the event’s best traits. According to Rice, providing an opportunity for community members to reunite is one of the Ramp Festival’s most enjoyable qualities.
“You see people here that you’ve not seen since last year,” Rice said. “It’s kind of a reunion.”
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