We are finishing dinner, put together from the odds-and-ends in the refrigerator: Sandwiches made with turkey bacon, a very ripe avocado dripping with extra virgin olive oil, and a store bought tomato, along with huge sides of the only vegetable we have in the garden just now.
Asparagus. A gallon of it. Tender, thick, purple tipped, worthy of its name, SuperMale.
Less than three weeks ago we cleaned out the asparagus bed, chopping away the Chickweed and Witch grass to make room for the tender shoots. We checked for them each day for a week. Nothing. We waited three more days and were rewarded with four slender stalks, which I added to the greens in a Salade printanière.
Now, of course, we have more asparagus than we should be able to eat. Except that tonight, Keith has tossed it with olive oil, sea salt, and pepper, and roasted it in a very hot oven. The resulting asparagus tastes like crispy herbed French fries. We munch away, listening to the coyotes gathering in the south field.
Asparagus is an odd-looking plant, gangly and perpetually pre-pubescent. It has been cultivated for more than two thousand years, and it is the source of a recipe in the oldest surviving cookbook. It eventually came to North America with the immigrants who gathered the perennial vegetable on the European seacoasts where it grew wild. It is loaded with fiber, vitamins, and minerals, and its unique chemical content induces a very particularly scented urine in anyone who eats it. If you’ve never noticed the smell, you are one of the 78% of the world’s population to lack the receptor required to enable you to detect asparagus-tainted pee. But trust the other 22% of us: Your pee smells just like ours.
Asparagus is a vegetable “Madeleine” for people of a certain age and class—i.e., anyone who suffered the hard knocks of the Great Depression or was raised by someone who did. One bite and I am a child again, watching my mother—who was otherwise an excellent cook—cranking open a can labeled “asparagus” but containing slimy little stumps in a sickroom shade of green. Or we are shopping for said asparagus at the A&P, a ponderous old store with a worn, wide-planked wooden floor. If we dug to the back of the stockpile, we could find cans stamped 23 cents rather than 25 cents, which meant I’d be allowed to “go crazy” at the candy counter. Back then, 8 cents could buy sixteen marshmallow-topped miniature ice cream cones; a Hershey bar or a carton of syrup-filled wax pop bottles AND three black licorice rolls wrapped around a candy stud; or a length of candy buttons as tall as I was, each dollop of brightly colored sugar stuck to a spinning roll of wax paper. Asparagus conjures up my father, too, wearing a white, vee-necked tee shirt and dress slacks and cooking his idea of dinner while my mother is working late: White toast topped with canned asparagus and hard boiled eggs, all of it smothered in cream-of-mushroom soup. My brothers and I were not allowed to leave the table until our plates were clean, and given that our garbage disposal was an empty Maxwell House can, leftovers were impossible to hide. As a result, I spent a lot of time alone in the kitchen at 1501 Harrison Street, counting the grooves in the cabinets and the tiles on the floor, waiting until I could hear the theme music from “Have Gun, Will Travel” and knew it was safe to slip out to bury my supper in the ash pit.
Two weeks from now, having consumed about twenty pounds of steamed, broiled, grilled, and roasted asparagus, even Keith and I will have had our fill. So we will begin giving it away to family and friends, themselves hand-picked. We favor people who grew up knowing how to stretch a dinner dollar, people who had no choice but to eat affordable if inedible food: creamed chipped beef, scrambled brains and eggs, fried Spam, and slimy stumps of canned asparagus.
Because only people who remember what life was like without it understand what a blessing fresh asparagus really is.