Even the humble wild leek provides fuel to keep alive centuries of stereotypes of Appalachian Americans, according to a Montana State University Billings professor.
Melissa Boehm was speaking Tuesday evening in “What’s Cooking? Exploring American Food, Culture, Politics, and History,” a series of six lectures in the MSU Billings Library Lecture Series. The series started last week with a talk by Sam Boerboom on “Americans at the Table: The Political Language of Food.”
Boehm’s topic was “Pungent but Problematic: Media and Food Culture.” “Pungent,” she said, is a word often used to describe the wild leek, better known in West Virginia as the ramp. Ramps have been a rite of spring in West Virginia for generations, she said. People come together for ramp suppers, and ramp festivals are held.
Ramps are also favored for their supposed health benefits, including high Vitamin C content and evidence that they reduce blood pressure. An Appalachian saying goes, “By eating ramps in May, all the year after, physicians may play.”
In recent years, the wider world has begun to take notice. Books have been written about the ramp, and cookbooks have appeared. Martha Stewart and Better Homes and Gardens have taken notice. Accordingly, the price has soared.
But Boehm, a professor in the Communications and Theatre Department, said that stereotypes that have persisted in Appalachia for centuries also have been applied to ramp culture. Those stereotypes include depictions of hillbillies, feuds, moonshine stills, environmental destruction, joblessness and hopelessness.
As evidence of those stereotypes, she cited William Byrd, an early surveyor who wrote in 1728 that Appalachian men were lazy and stupid and that women did much of their work.
Will Wallace Harney described Appalachia in an 1873 article as “a strange land and a peculiar people.” In a series of novels in the late 19th century, John Fox Jr., who never visited Appalachia, described it based on letters he received from his brother.
Stereotypes persisted on television and in the movies. The History Channel showed a documentary hosted by Billy Ray Cyrus called “Hillbilly: The Real Story.” Although set in California, “The Beverly Hillbillies” drew on similar stereotypes, as did the variety show “Hee Haw.”
The reality TV show “Buckwild” exploited those stereotypes, as did “The Dukes of Hazzard.” The movie “Deliverance” was decried by scholars for its depiction of hillbillies as criminals and perverts.
To test how those stereotypes affected ramp coverage in the news media, Boehm studied newspaper articles from 1980 to 2014 in the New York Times and in the Charleston (W. Va.) Gazette. She focused on 12 articles in the Times and 26 in the Gazette.
Both newspapers printed stories about students supposedly sent home from school because of aromatic breath the day after eating ramps. The word “pungent” showed up in 10 of the 12 articles in the Times but in only 54 percent of the Gazette articles. A Times article said ramps “make a kitchen smell like a bus in Rome” and quoted a West Virginian who said, “Ramps go with changing the oil or your underwear.”
The Gazette focused more on the ramp crop as a rite of spring and cited health benefits of eating them.
In general, she said, the Times treated ramps, once they were transported to New York restaurants, as sophisticated and appealing. But the Times’ references to ramps in their native West Virginia were cruder and more condescending.
Coverage in the Gazette was more nuanced, Boehm said, emphasizing the importance of the ramp in Appalachian culture and the need to preserve it.
In sum, she said, the ramp is an example of a common wild food long consumed by the working classes that has become prized by the upper class. In their native environment, such foods retain the demeaning cultural stereotypes that attach to the region as a whole. In their adopted big-city environment, they acquire an appealing sense of sophistication and exoticism.
Ramps operate politically to either separate people or bring them together, she said.
She asked the audience to name other foods in the same category. One mentioned that his family in Maine ate lobsters during the Great Depression but buried the remains in the yard so neighbors wouldn’t notice that they were too poor to afford fish.
Others mentioned brisket, once the cheapest cut of meat but now prized in barbecue, and another mentioned Rocky Mountain oysters. One audience member also mentioned lutefisk, but others questioned whether lutefisk had ever become prized by the rich.
The free lecture series continues at 6:30 p.m. Tuesdays through April 19 in Library Room 148 at MSU Billings.