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Ramping up: Chicago by any other name would smell as sweet

Allium tricoccum

        Allium tricoccum

Although you won’t find any at your average hot-dog stand, Allium tricoccum is the real native food of Chicago.

Also known as the ramp, wild leek, wild garlic and ail des bois, A. tricoccum is the vegetable that gave the city its name.

While scholars are still arguing, most historians agree that Chicago is a corruption of a French misspelling of the word for this plant in the language of the Miami and Illinois tribes. The name was first recorded by 17th-century explorer Robert Cavelier, sieur de La Salle, and explained by his comrade, naturalist-diarist Henri Joutel.

 
In his 1687 account of the last expedition of La Salle, Joutel wrote:

We arrived at a place which is named Chicagou, which, according to what we learned, has taken its name from the quantity of garlic which grows in this district, in the woods … a species of garlic in quantity which is not entirely like that of France, having its leaf broader and shorter, and is also not so strong, though its taste closely approaches it but is not like the little onions or the onion of France.

Joutel’s Journal

While early historians first thought that the chicagou plant — ail sauvage, in French — was Allium cernuum, the nodding wild onion, research by John F. Swenson in the early 1990s shows the correct plant was the ramp.

An early spring vegetable, ramps have a strong garlicky odor and a pronounced onion flavor, narrow stalks something like scallions, and broad lance-shaped leaves.

Although they grew thickly in this area during the 17th century, wild specimens are rarely seen today in the Cook County forest preserves (where they’d be illegal to harvest even if you spotted some). Your best for finding them is to search in gourmet markets and on the menus of fine-dining restaurants.

 
Local restaurant chefs featuring ramps right now include:

  • Cary Taylor at The Southern in Wicker Park:
    Smothered ramps and snap peas, seared pork chop, smashed local potatoes, $16.

  • Chris Macchia at Coco Pazzo in River North:
    Pizze rampe e formaggio di capra, pizza with ramps and goat cheese, $16.

  • Dannny Grant at Balsan on the Gold Coast:
    Pork loin and pork belly with a ragu of morels and ramps glazed in chicken stock and butter, $27.

  • Paul Virant at Vie in Western Springs:
    Ricotta gnocchi, sweet peas, buttered Werp Farm ramp bulbs, fines herbes, $12; Slagel Family Farm pork combination featuring wood-grilled smoked loin, braised fresh bacon and hearth sausage, with braised cranberry beans, local turnips and pickled ramps, pork jus, $29; and 28-day-aged Dietzler Farm beef combination featuring wood-grilled ribeye and house-made knackwurst with braised ramp sauerkraut, mustard greens, fried fingerlings and mustard vinaigrette, $34.

Call to check availability.