Sunday, May 3, 2009

Mentoring and Ramping It Up

The enigmatic Miss Havisham has challenged me to explore the theme, “If I could have met with a mentor on a weekly basis when I was a teenager, I . . . "

I grew up in Clarksburg, West Virginia. I'm tempted to write, "I grew up poor," because that's what people from outside of the Mountain State expect. I suspect we were, but I never knew it at the time. My (once-well-to-do) mother from Tokyo could outdress and outclass anyone. She insisted on buying my clothes from Claurice's Boutique, not from Sears or the five-and-dime like all the other girls at Broadway Elementary. So, even though our family income may have been below the magical line, we didn't look or act the part.

My hard-working dad, like most of the dads in our neighborhood, lugged a metal lunch pail to work each day to a blue collar job at a glass factory. That is, when the factory wasn't shut down. Even in the 60s, the economy was dicy in WV, and it seems there were always layoffs and plant closures.

My world was small. Women were housewives or spinster teachers and dads worked at factories. I knew of just three exceptions. At the time, they seemed to be in a "privileged set," but looking back now I can see that they were scraping by. Jennifer Andy's dad owned Pete Andy's, a little corner grocer. Bobby Lindsay was the son of a fireman. And Allen Saoud's dad owned and drove a small candy truck that heralded, "Here comes Marcelle the Candy Man."

I didn't know much about what laid outside the 'burg, but school assemblies changed all that. I was impressionable and easily impressed, in awe of every one of the speakers who flung up windows to whole new worlds. Most students looked at assemblies as a ticket out of classwork, but not me. I can still vividly recall presentations I heard more than four decades ago.

If I could have chosen a mentor it would have been my favorite assembly speaker, Jim Comstock, publisher and editor of the West Virginia Hillbilly.

I was probably nine at the time, and he must have been in his fifties, but I was mesmerized by his wit, his energy and his passion for writing and publishing. His newspaper was published in Richwood, a small town in southern West Virginia known for its annual wild ramp festival. One year the mischievious Comstock decided to celebrate the pungent wild onion by infusing ramp juice into the ink of the newspaper. He stunk up post offices all over the state. The Post Master made him promise never to pull that stunt again.

Oh, how I loved that story! It demonstrated to me so many possibilities. Of being wildly creative and fearless. Of leaving your mark (and your scent). Of loving the outcome. These were all things that had not occurred to me before hearing Comstock. I felt intoxicated and would have loved nothing more than getting drunk on him every week.

I smile now every time I see humble ramps on the menu of fancy-schmancy restaurants. I wonder what my "mentor" would have to say about their new lofty status. I think about those West Virginia post offices that must have smelled like "wild onions and bear piss." Then I take a big, imaginary whiff, and I'm still intoxicated by the aroma. For me, ramps will always smell like the sweetest scent of all - possibility.


Kathy's fresh approach is a far cry from our family's springtime tradition. We ate our wild ramps scrambled with eggs and rolled in flat bread purchased from one of the several Lebanese families in our neighborhood. We were, apparently, early food fusion trendies.


Jean Spitzer said...

I had to look up ramps (wild leeks) to fully get this--what a great memory. Where I grew up (West Hollywood), such things didn't exist (at least in my neck of the neighborhood).

Calamity Anne said...

Ramps were alien to me up until a couple of weeks ago when I saw a recipe for them on someone's I've heard of them for a second time! I know I've never seen them at our local markets or farmers market...but now I'm on a quest!!!

Miss Havisham's Tea Party said...

Oh, fabulous. Keep peeling the onion.

Piper Robert said...

Ramps and black-eyed peas. Awesome.

Don't forget about Alan Saoud.

I didn't realize we were on the south side of the affluent line until a few years ago. I was "bragging" about our brother going to Head Start. The response was something like, "Oh, that program is for poor kids." My thoughts were, "Huh? We were poor?"

altadenahiker said...

Sometimes I don't know how to comment when I read a story I like. Just say how much I like it, I guess.

Wandering Chopsticks said...

I loved this post. I grew up poor, but I knew we were poor. I still think I had a great childhood anyway.

It's funny how all these peasant foods are now trendy -- ramps, oxtails, nettles, etc.

Susan C said...

Jean, I added some more links to ramps. I don't reckon there are too many of the wild leeks growing in West Hollywood.

Anne, Isn't that phenom funny when something suddenly keeps popping up. Their growing season (at least the ones that grow naturally in the Appalachians) is very short - about six weeks, but they seem to be on menus year-round.

Miss H, OK, I'll keep peeling that skinny, stinky onion of my life.

Robert, I forgot about the Saouds. I just added Allen to the post. Allen is my friend on Facebook. He's a successful dermatologist in Bridgeport and his two sisters work for him.

I had the same experience "bragging" about our younger bro going to Head Start. The first family member to go to kindergarten - I thought that was worth bragging about. Got the same reaction. "Um, that's a program for low income families."

AH, Gee, thanks. That means a lot.

WC, The thing that I didn't get into in this story is that we felt really rich and have the richest memories associated with spending summers at my grandma's house in the country.

I know - it cracks me up about the "poor folks" food being trendy. I guess good eats are good eats!

Petrea said...

Well I just love this. Why doesn't it surprise me that not only would you have chosen a journalist, but your favorite memory of him involves food? said...

J Comstock had some interesting things to say about change. The loss of appalachian art forms and the struggle to get government recognition. I like him lots. Considering the interview took place in 75 it's speaks to his wisdom that his insights still hold up. The commentary on last african weaver is heartbreaking but I'm happy to see that someone saved the first marble maker. I may have some of those marbles.
Interesting post. I'm saving the link.

Marcy said...

Hello Susan, wonderful post, as always! ;) I just had to comment this one being that I'm from WV and have my very own ramp patch. haha Ramp Festivals ( cookoffs ), and Live BlueGrass are a seasonal thing here. They are an awesome flavor enhancement to many recipes. I've even had them in a traditional "Korean" dish called "Bulgogi". They made it even more delicious. ( Warning though "ramps" do leave a tell tell odor, lots of brushing and breath mints required after eating! tehe ) Goodnight all, Thanks again Susan for the wonderful post! xo~

Susan C said...

Petrea, It is pretty appropriate, isn't it.

PA, I'm so glad you took the time to read more about J. Comstock. What a wise and woolly character! And that ramp juice in the newsprint ink thing was like performance art.

Here's the link to Comstock's NY Times obit:

I see he had a brother who lived in LA at the time of his death. Musta' been the black sheep.

Marcy, I was thinking about you when I wrote this, wondering if you have ever eaten ramps. Hey, now I don't have to worry about missing this year's Richwood ramp fest. I can go to the Marcy fest.

Piper Robert said...

I don't think you have warned anyone about the potential after effects of ramps.

Anonymous said...

So true about the performance art angle. It caught my attention. Two sisters in Arizona (the gray sheep?)

Nelle said...

I love leeks but have never had ramps. Must try them. I loved this post. I remember being little and my Dad was in the Navy. We got clothes only ONCE a year when Hechts had their dollar sale. My Mom was a huge Goodwill shopper and I was so embarassed about that. Now where I work it is so trendy to buy used clothing as it is so "green" and I just laugh.
Hope your coughing gets better. Have you tried a "hot toddy" that really helps me.

Chow and Chatter said...

wow you can write and tell stories well, love your blog

Carolyn Jung said...

What a sweet story! I could totally relate, too. I loved to read and write as a child, and whenever I read something especially eloquent, I would be transported to another world. That's what I love about the printed word -- the ability to provoke magic through our own imagination.

Nathan Allen said...

Just love those wonderful Ramps, here in Clarksburg, West Virgina they are a Spring tonic for us Mountaineers. Cook in water till tender and drain, fry Bacon and use the drippings to cover them, I just like eating them plain with bacon grease. You can also fry potatoes with them..There all gone now have to wait till next Spring..

carole said...

I'm from WV too. I grew up on Tyler Mountain. So much wild food in the woods. I remember loving ramps. I moved from WV after high school. I miss the mountains and the wild food. Have you ever had landcress? (creasy greens)?
Thanks for sharing and bringing back fond memories.

virginia said...

one west virginia cousin, near spencer:

and another, in clarksburg:

congrats on blog-of-note!

Susan C said...

I'm so thrilled to get comments from my friends in West Virginia.

Nathan, one day (maybe 2010) I'm going to make it to that annual ramp festival.

Carole, never heard of landcress. Gotta' add that to my bucket list.

Virginia, I was born in Clarksburg and spent the first 13 years of my life there. said...


Photobug said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Photobug said...

What a delightful article...I love spending my weekends in Califronia. Next trip out there I'll remember your special restaraunt.

If you love to write, join us on HubPages and share your amazing stories...

Breah said...

Hi Susan, I am a new subscriber to your blog. Actually, I just joined today. It was your "ramp" post that "ramped" me in.
I had never heard of ramps until this past April. My parents own a cabin in North Carolina. I have spent almost every summer and Thanksgiving up there for the past 3 1/2 decades, and had never heard of ramps.
My mom and I took a trip up to the cabing, visited a local diner and made friends with him. As a local, he comes to have his breakfast there every day. During our conversation he shouted to the waitress, "Hey gal, I am bring in some ramps tomorrow." I couldn't fathom what he was talking about, but my mother jumped up to her feet and said I will pay you for some!!!!! She knew what he was talking about.
I quickly learned what they were and my mouth was not dissapointed!

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