It was a few minutes before 9 on Monday morning, and once again, Joe Osborn was the first in line for the opening day of ramp burgers at Ridge View BBQ in Institute.
“I love ramps,” he said. “The sauce they put on it, it’s made with the ramps, it’s delicious.”
He’s been first in line ever since Ridge View started this wildly popular tradition three years ago.
But this time around, he had some competition — the kind of fierce, taunting but teasing competition that could only come from a good friend.
“Roger saw my picture on the wall as being the first one, and he said, ‘Well, I’m gonna beat Joe this year.’ So I made a special effort to be over here real early.”
“He beat me by just a few minutes this morning, accused me of following him across the bridge,” lamented his buddy, Roger Massey.
Massey went on to work, promising to come back for lunch. But by the time the doors opened, Osborn had plenty of company.
“I’m scared to open the door, afraid I’m gonna get run over,” said waitress Megan Tucker, unlocking the restaurant for a stream of customers.
“I’ve been cursed all winter. People’ve sent me hate mail. ‘Why don’t you have it yet? Why not now? Ramps are up in Boone County,’ like, three weeks ago. ‘Why don’t you start selling ‘em now?’ But we do it April first,” said Jim Smith, one of four co-owners of Ridge View BBQ along with his wife, Wendy Smith, and brother- and sister-in-law Nick and Nicki Gohlmann.
“We’ve been shamelessly building hype. We’ve had over 200 comments on Facebook just since yesterday,” he added.
“This is our third year of doing the ramp burger and it is highly anticipated,” said Nicki Gohlmann. “Wendy and Jim have a friend up in Richwood that sells ramps and, just as a kind of West Virginia ramp tradition, Jim came up with a burger recipe.”
In fact, he is the mastermind behind the secret ramp sauce.
“I’m not gonna give you my recipe,” he said, smiling but not joking, right off the bat.
He did offer a few hints.
Most people, he said, mix ramps into their burgers.
“We make a pimento cheese with bacon and ramps that we put on top of ‘em. It brings out more flavor and we wanted to be different from everybody else,” he said.
“And it’s better than everybody else’s,” he grinned.
Most of the bragging is done tongue-in-cheek, but Jim is serious about his food — and this time of year, he is focused on the ramp.
“It’s God’s gift to hungry hillbillies,” he said. “I plagiarized that from a customer.”
The ramps are donated by Four Seasons Outfitters in Richwood. The folks there select a different charity each year, and $1 from each ramp burger sold goes to that charity. They haven’t yet announced who this year’s fund will benefit — perhaps because they’ve been too busy shipping ramps to chefs and restaurants all over the country.
Ramps are a West Virginia peasant food that has become a high end commodity, Jim Smith said. Ridge View alone will use about 500 pounds from now through the end of May.
“Most fancy foods have peasant origins,” he said.
The ramp sauce with its pimento cheese and bacon is incredibly versatile, Wendy Smith said.
“You can ramp up anything, basically, so ramp it up and eat it on anything,” she said. “I eat it with chips. I eat it like a dip. But people get it with fries a lot.”
Newbies are sometimes put off by the rumors and folklore connected to the onion-like vegetable, Jim Smith said.
“They aren’t as pungent as people believe,” he insisted.
“The sweatin’ through your pores comes from the fact that people tend to eat a lot of ‘em. If you ate as much garlic or onion you’d have the same reaction. Any pungent vegetable will do that to you.”
In fact, that widespread belief may have given Joe Osborn an insider’s advantage when it came to his friendly competition. At 62 years of age, his buddy Roger Massey, who’s spent his entire life in West Virginia, had his very first ramp just last year — in a Ridge View BBQ ramp burger.
“I was scared to death to try a ramp because I’ve heard so much about the pungent odor and the fact that it’ll actually get into your skin and release a smell the body sprays and such won’t cover up,” he said.
They also came from so far away that no one he knew really know how to cook them.
“But they talked me into one last year and it was just a wonderful flavor,” he said.
He paused for a bite, as a plan began to form in his mind.
“Next year I’ve got it,” he said. “I’ll be over here first thing in the morning.”