Asparagus is a great word. If I was a vegetable, I wouldn’t mind being called asparagus.
(I bring up asparagus—sorry, the word deserves a space in each of the three sentences I’ve written so far—because it’s in season right now. Just an FYI, the German word is ‘spargel’—pronounced ‘shpargle.’)
The fact that it’s in season over here in Baden-Wuerttemberg might not seem like a big deal to most people reading this, but I’ll tell you what. It’s a big freaking deal. Germans refer to it as ‘white gold,’ if that gives you any idea of the value they assign it.
I was curious about why it’s known as ‘white gold’ so I did some intensive Internet research and learned that it all goes back to Louis XIV who decided he had a hankering for the vegetable. It was served to noble people at lots of fancy- schmancy dinners. And, for the longest time they kept it all for themselves and wouldn’t share because they’d claimed it as a rich person’s veggie, like the rutabagas or sunchokes of today. (I have no idea what rutabagas or sunchokes even are. So, I assume they’re reserved for rich people. Bastards.)
But, starting in the 19th century, it all trickled down to the ‘little’ people and now even frizzy-headed expats who are fond of licking their plates after dinner (only at home, though, I swear) can enjoy it, too.
(Just to be clear, we’re talking about white asparagus and not the tiny green ones with frayed ends. The kind that sometimes, when you try to cut it, splits up the length of the spear into white, stringy pieces that you have to wind around your fork like spaghetti.
Also, just another little FYI, what drains white asparagus of its green color is that the plants are kept out of direct sunlight. So, chlorophyll never ‘happens.’ Who knew asparagus was so interesting?)
Anyway, the season begins in early May and ends in late June. During that time, you see asparagus everywhere. Stores, farmers markets, sold out of caravans off the highways.
Most restaurants add their own seasonal asparagus page to the menu. My personal favorite is the standard ½ pound steamed and soaked in Hollandaise sauce (this yellow, creamy, decadent sauce that smothers any nutritional value that was in the vegetable. Best way to eat vegetables.) But there’s also asparagus-cream soup, asparagus in pizzas, asparagus wrapped in prosciutto, asparagus in pancakes, and asparagus chopped up into millions of pieces and added to ground beef to make meatballs.
I made up the last one. Is it obvious I don’t do much cooking?
Asparagus is known as a royal vegetable in Germany, and I live just down the road from the town of Schwetzingen, otherwise known as the ASPARAGUS CAPITAL OF THE WORLD. (According to Schwetzingen.)
As a kind of verification of their status, they’ve set out a bronze statue of a woman farming asparagus right in front of the castle. And, every year there’s a festival devoted to their culinary treasure.
Todd and I went two years ago and there were lots of beer tents and wine huts and a whole medieval section (because what’s a German festival without throwing in bear skin capes, swords, and chain mail?)
Strangely enough, I found very little evidence of actual asparagus at the festival.
But, no matter. Sometimes I think the ultra-private Germans organize all these festivals just to have the excuse to drag their lederhosen out of the closet and let go of their German-ness for a while by dancing on top of tables, singing, and engaging in acts of widely accepted public drunkenness.
As a side note, said acts of public drunkenness are almost always accompanied by the following songs; seriously, go to any fest in Germany and I guarantee you’ll hear them;
Hey Baby (i.e. the song from Dirty Dancing,)
Wahnsinn Hoelle, Hoelle, Hoelle
Next Door to Alice (to which Germans yell “Who the Fuck is Alice?” in English after each chorus.)
The town of Beelitz also has a huge asparagus festival, and they even elect a queen. (Which leads me to wonder if they’re secretly trying to usurp Schwetzingen’s throne?)
Last year’s royalty was 26 year old Dana Beiler. She described her crowning moment in an article on NPR,
“I sent my application to the Asparagus Association. Then I had an interview with the farmers and had to answer some asparagus questions.” She says the farmers wanted to hear her opinion on the challenges faced by the revered vegetable.”
So, again, you might be reading this and ask—but why is asparagus such a big deal?
Because when things that aren’t in season in Germany, they simply aren’t in season. You can’t get them.
In the States just about anything you could ever want is available year round. Here, that’s not the case. You say you’re in the mood for radishes, strawberries, peaches, cherries, plums, or redcurrant (whatever that is?) Sorry! You have to wait.
It all reminds me of times I went shopping with my parents as a kid.
We’d walk into Sears and they’d say, “Okay, we’re not riding the mechanical rocket ship today, Sarah. So, don’t even ask.”
And I obviously always wanted to ride it. But I never asked. I just waited.
Then sometimes we’d go to Sears and they’d lead me right over to the mechanical rocket ship, stick a quarter in, and I got to ride. In those moments there was nothing better than that rocket ship, my parents, or that five minutes.
My parents knew enough to delay gratification here and there because, sure, you want it more. But you also appreciate it more when the time comes.
And, it’s that exact scenario that has me acting like a dog in heat the minute I know something that comes from the edible shoots of a perennial and is made up of 95% water is finally on the menu for two months.
Now that I think about it, I feel that sense of delayed gratification in the summer, here, too.
In German summer, you sweat. You step on to the tram along with a hundred other people, and there’s always that one in the bunch who forgot deodorant and you can just about chew the stench.
You walk slowly and stare up at outdoor clocks that say it’s 35 degrees, and you’re too hot to do the conversion to Fahrenheit so you just accept that it’s hot. Vietnam hot (if you’ve seen Good Morning Vietnam.)
In restaurants you fan yourself with the menu. You sit by the window to catch a breeze. Children swim in fountains. You learn to put your rolladens down at certain times to trap the cool air inside (Germans have this down to a fine art.)
You live in your basement, if you have one. You sleep on top of your sheets at night. You suffer until three a.m.
In the States you just…go inside, anywhere at all, and most likely the AC’s on high and you need a sweater and boots and earmuffs, but you feel comfortable. I guess.
There isn’t any asparagus, so there isn’t any asparagus. There’s heat, so there’s heat. You’re forced to live the reality.
But when a cool day finally does comes around—wow. It’s amazing. It’s a gift. It’s a seriously big deal.
You appreciate it because there isn’t the immediate gratification of getting whatever we wanted in the moment. You had to wait for it. To be given it. I kind of like this aspect of the German living.
If I desperately want blackberries and it isn’t blackberry season, you can be sure I’ll have Todd pick me some up from the commissary.
That’s the Buffalo in me.