Cooking and eating is a very complex activity, it consists of much more than going through the mechanical motions of preparing, cooking, and serving—so many psychological, emotional and cultural factors also come into play. Case in point: the asparagus that I roasted for supper.
Asparagus is a phallic food, and cooking and eating it is a sexual experience, even though we may not consciously realize it. (If you have doubts, check out the History section of Wikipedia’s Asparagus entry). Asparagus is a perennial that has a deep root mass, from which tender shoots emerge every spring. And its figurative roots go very deep, all the way back to my childhood on the farm.
We had an asparagus patch back in the corner of the small, unfenced grassy field at was the site of our galvanized steel grain storage structure, and where we parked numerous farm implements. It is interesting to note that the asparagus patch wasn’t anywhere near the vegetable garden, which was plowed every winter. Being a perennial, it had to be in a place that would never be plowed.
In the spring, tender green shoots would emerge from the ground, stretching upward towards the sky, growing in girth as well as in length. They would remain tender until they reached about a foot in length, at which point they would start to get woody, branch out with feathery green leaves, and eventually reach 4 or 5 feet in height. In the summer they would bloom with little quarter-inch white flowers, and by fall these would be replaced with little round red berries which were said to be poisonous to humans, although birds seemed to love them. Once an asparagus stalk started branching out, it was past the edible stage, and was left to flower and seed out. We always let a certain number of stalks go to seed on purpose.
At some point during my early childhood I discovered how delicious a fresh, super tender stalk of asparagus tasted. I would occasionally sneak into the asparagus patch, snap off a few shoots and pop them in my mouth one at a time, savoring their crunch and slightly bitter, slightly sweet taste, not too different from raw peas.
Eating the raw produce from the garden was not prohibited; we purposefully planted an excess of peas every year, with the knowledge that some would make it to the supper table, some would be canned, and some would be stuffed into bursting jeans pockets to be enjoyed while strolling across the fields or while perched high up in a maple tree. The asparagus patch, on the other hand, was limited in size and production capacity, and was therefore little tolerant of “friendly poaching.”
One day at the supper table, where topics of discussion included “the state of the farm,” my mother expressed her concern that the current year’s crop of asparagus seemed to be smaller than usual, and that she had no idea why. There didn’t seem to be any unusual I gestation of insect pests, and neither had the cattle gotten out of the pasture to munch and trample indiscriminately.
I blushed but said nothing. I realized then that the rest of the family would enjoy less asparagus that year because of my selfishness. And my mother probably was on to me. I stopped helping myself to asparagus in the field, and the asparagus crisis was averted.
Today, many decades later, I cannot prepare or eat asparagus without having these memories flooding back into my mind—the exquisite taste of the purloined tender shoot, the scratchiness of the old dry asparagus fronds, the fresh smell of the earth and the grass, the tickling of the breeze wafting across the countryside, and the warm caress of the sun on my shoulders.