If you were a visitor to Urbana’s Market on the Square during the first weeks of the season, you may have noticed that the only produce available that wasn’t still growing in a peat pot was asparagus, that perennial vegetable that “keeps on giving” like a Mr. Wizard experiment.
I was thinking about my own exposure to this vegetable, which I had not experienced before adulthood. As a kid, my parents didn’t want to introduce any objectionable green stuff into the gustatory repertoire of what I would eat without complaining — namely, corn, peas, and the occasional iceberg salad drowned in Ranch dressing. So asparagus, along with squash, artichokes, and Brussels sprouts, were not on the menu until I was able to celebrate the strangeness and wonder of delectable vegetables.
Around that same time, my dad took over my grandmother’s garden. Where she knew by name every plant, flower, and weed that sprang up, my dad took a more laid-back approach: he would distribute the compost, and if an errant peach pit or half-growing potato decided to take root, he would let it run its course to see if it would eventually be edible. That was until the asparagus plant appeared. It looked sort of like a tiny pine tree, about two feet tall, with fernlike branches. For three consecutive springs, he babied the plant with special manure, pH soil tests, and regular hay mulchings, all to no avail. Even after all that, the best yield he got was a single two-inch stalk that he could not bear to trim back, tear out, or eat.
Thinking back on that, I am impressed with the number of farmers who can successfully grow enough asparagus to pick, bundle, and transfer to our market during the early days of the growing season. From what I witnessed at the market, it was a favorite among many shoppers, and most sellers were sold out by day’s end.
Historically speaking, asparagus, a horticultural cousin of onion and garlic classified in the lily family, has enjoyed a long and illustrious career as a favorite vegetable. Originally cultivated along the Nile River Delta, it later won fans in Greece and Rome, including Julius Caesar, Galen, and Plutarch. A recipe for it even makes an appearance in the first extant cookbook by Apicius from the 3rd century AD. More contemporary celebrities have also enjoyed it, including King Louis XIV, Dr. John Harvey Kellogg (of cereal fame), and Marcel Proust. Proust gives us a most lyrical celebration of the plant in the first volume of Remembrance of Things Past:
…but what most delighted me were the asparagus, steeped in ultramarine and pink, whose tips, delicately painted with little strokes of mauve and azure, shade off imperceptibly down to their feet…with an iridescence that is not of this earth…these celestial hues revealed the delicious creatures who had merrily metamorphosed themselves into vegetables…
I now share these celebrities’ enthusiasm for this unique vegetable, which has surprising versatility. In India, asparagus is made into curries, German farmers cultivate white stalks by not permitting the plant to photosynthesize, and the Chinese candy it and serve it as a sweet treat. As the first local crop of spring, asparagus can be roasted, steamed, grilled, or eaten raw. It lends itself well to mild combinations with other vegetables, starches, sauces, and proteins. It’s a favorite in fritattas and quiches, pastas, and salads. One of my personal favorite recipes is a chilled salad with lemon vinaigrette and artichoke hearts topped with feta cheese (a recipe can be found here.) Not every vegetable is equally successful in this many incarnations and preparations (I’m looking at you, broccoli), and I think it is partly due to its ancient beginnings that we now can enjoy it in so many interesting and exciting ways.
As the market season progresses, we will have many varieties of produce to peruse on Saturday mornings. And I’m sure that many will have surprising backgrounds and interesting recipes to impress us. However, asparagus stands alone as one of the market’s most globally celebrated vegetables. And it’s most famous attribute, what Proust tactfully noted as its ability to “[change] my chamber pot into a jar of perfume” gives it a certain personality that cannot be denied.