To some people asparagus is as undesirable as rutabagas. Although I like rutabagas and asparagus, my father wouldn’t eat asparagus; he said it could poison anyone who ate it.
Technically, he was right, for almost anything could be harmful if we eat too much of it, rutabagas included, which Mom never served.
Asparagus is a weed, Dad said, but he didn’t plow up Mom’s asparagus patch. Thankfully, Mom introduced asparagus to my three brothers and me. Wild asparagus is different than the domestic varieties that are available in most American food markets. Wild asparagus has stalks that are an inch or more thick.
Wild asparagus in America descends from European and Asian plants that were brought to the New World during recent centuries; it has thick stalks and is called spargel in Germany. It has much more flavor than the types grown for grocery stores in our country and is tender, despite its size.
Many people, especially in Germany, look forward each spring to spargelfest, which is sort of like Oktoberfest but has fewer inebriating effects than Oktoberfest. I can testify only about spargelfest. (Sorry, lovers of Oktoberfest, but I hope to elucidate more about your holiday someday.)
Some of the asparagus consumed during spargelfest is white, because it was covered with opaque plastic to obscure it from sunlight as it sprang from the earth to its 8-inch height at harvest. White asparagus is especially treasured in many European countries for reasons I can’t explain, because green and white asparagus taste the same to me.
It’s usually wise to peel the outer covering off any thick stalks from older asparagus plants that are woody at their bottoms, or toss the tough stalks into a food processor that pulverizes everything into a delicious pureed soup, by adding a few ingredients like salt, pepper and cream.
Asparagus, both wild and domestic, and even in soups, taints the smell of the urine of people who consume the plant. Perhaps that’s why Dad said asparagus was poisonous.
The smell is produced by asparagusic acid, which, when digested, breaks down into sulfurous compounds that the kidneys excrete in urine. These compounds might smell bad, but the available information I perused says they don’t harm anybody.
Some asparagus aficionados claim the smell is proof of being hardy. That explanation sounds good to me.
China is the largest consumer of asparagus by far, even though most Europeans and many people elsewhere around the world like asparagus and often raise it or harvest it wild. Some irrigation canals and rural road-banks in the United States have wild asparagus plants growing on moist soil that has ample exposure to sunlight.
After I met Marilyn’s parents 48 years ago, her father and I walked the banks of agricultural irrigation canals in her parents’ southern Idaho region to gather wild asparagus when it was in season. We sometimes harvested enough to fill a five-gallon bucket.
For some evening meals everyone consumed only asparagus, with a bit of butter and salt on the cooked stalks. Marilyn’s mother stood the 8- to 10-inch stalks upright in a bundle placed inside a deep covered pan with enough water to cook the bottoms until they were tender, while the asparagus tips remained firm. Delicious!
There is less wild asparagus available these days on the ditch banks of roads in my part of Iowa. Herbicides sprayed by farmers in nearby fields or by road maintenance departments on the ditches, and mowing the ditch banks, have diminished the abundance of these scrumptious plants.
This saddens me because the gradual departure of wild asparagus says something about how we are treating our environment. I haven’t visited Idaho lately to see what is happening to their wild asparagus.
Anyway, back to rutabagas. Some regular readers of “Farm and Ranch Life” know that the verdict of my rutabaga experiment a few years ago resulted in a hung jury within my family. However, last week Marilyn filed an appeal after she ate shredded rutabaga with leeks and eggs. “Yum,” she said, as she asked me to plant rutabagas in my garden this spring.
I had not asked Marilyn to try rutabagas again; her decision was induced by the diet she is trying, which of course is worth much more than my opinion in her weighty (sorry, Marilyn, and pun abhorrers!) decision. Actually, Marilyn is thinner and foxier than me and she has completely black hair.
(Yikes, I’m digging myself even deeper. Please don’t tell Marilyn that I wrote this because I didn’t submit a draft of this article to her for review and to pass “the Marilyn test.”)
I will visit our asparagus patches ASAP and walk the few road-banks where I have permission to harvest wild asparagus. People who appreciate Euell Gibbons’ book The Wild Asparagus can identify with my aspirations.
And yup, I already purchased rutabaga seeds and planted them.
Dr. Mike Rosmann is a psychologist and farmer in western Iowa. Readers may contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org