Tim Burton’s Rampathon
Knee Deep in Ramps and Never Knew It
Tim Burton may be known for maple (if you don’t know him for maple, you should), as the owner of Burton’s Maplewood Farm in Medora, Indiana. But come early spring, he’s a ramp tycoon, as his farm sits conveniently on a gold mine of ramps, everybody’s favorite wild onion.
Four years ago, Burton had no idea what a ramp was. The fact that he was surrounded by ramps every spring was unbeknownst to him. That’s sort of like having the key to the U.S. Mint and never using it. So one year he received an email from Mark Psilos from Green City Market, inquiring if he knew of a source for ramps. Since Burton presumed Psilos wasn’t looking for inclined platforms, he researched what a ramp was, and realized that he had been surrounded by ramps all along. For the past three years, he has picked ramps every time they sprout in early spring and brought them to chefs in Chicago, who are always as ravenous for ramps as kids were for Beanie Babies back in the day.
This year, Burton picked hundreds of pounds of ramps with the help of his high school-age nieces and nephews and their friends. They picked ramps down in hollers by the farm, hollers being Indiana lingo for small valley. Ramps grow along streams and hillsides, so Burton and his clan spent hours in the woods picking ramps, stuffing them into bags, and loading them into a truck.
The thing that chefs like the most about ramps is that they’re the first official sign of spring (screw that groundhog). Their blink-and-you’ll-miss-it growing season also adds to their coveted status. This year, Burton drove up early April 15 and parked out front of Publican Quality Meats so that chefs could come by and pick up ramps. He also made deliveries later that day, and wound up selling to more than 20 chefs, including Rick Bayless, Carrie Nahabedian, Kevin Hickey, Art Smith, Paul Fehribach, Mindy Segal, Mark Steuer, Jason Vincent, Stephanie Izard, Paul Virant, Bruce Sherman, and of course the whole Paul Kahan gamut. Burton gets a thrill delivering ramps to Chicago chefs because he gets to see the many different uses for ramps. At Allium, Hickey is working wonders with ramps, frying the ramps for a risotto and using the roots as garnish. Virant has also been tempura-frying ramp leaves. At Carriage House, Steuer is outfitting redfish grits with ramp pistou and a ragout of spring garlic, fava beans, and guanciale. Big Jones’ Fehribach sautées ramp tops with morel mushrooms and Sea Island benne in bacon fat as part of a vegetable dish.
Last year, Burton rewarded his high school helpers with a special surf & turf dinner on the farm the weekend after picking. This year, he’s planning to bring the group to Chicago for a couple days once Green City Market opens to show them the market and the city. Needless to say, I’ve already signed myself up to pick next year.