I Cuss, You Cuss, We All Cuss...
...for asparagus. Line shamelessly stolen from a Gary Larson cartoon called something like, "Marketing ventures that never got off the ground." And speaking of marketing, have you noticed how much more pervasive the marketing of asparagus has become lately? I mean, can you remember any joyful gathering of the asparagus harvest during your childhood? Hymns being sung in church like "Asparagus Is Icumen In?" Maidens skipping back from the fields with baskets -- I'm sure you get the picture. But only a picture, not an actual memory.
None of this was a part of my childhood, but that may be because I spent it at 312 Lenah Valley Road, Hobart, Tasmania, a land where fossilised asparagus was noticeably not found in the excavation of aboriginal middens, which is all that passes for archaeology down there. It could also be because asparagus did not form a part of the regional cooking of Via Del Commune, Casalnuovo Monterotaro, Provinicia di Foggia, which is what my mother learned at her mother's knee and later, mostly through the intervention of the Second World War, ended up feeding to us at 312 Lenah Valley Road, Hobart, Tasmania.
Asparagus might have been a mainstay of the regional cooking of the next street over from Via Del Commune, but we'll have none of those fancy foreign ways over here, thank you very much.
And speaking of fancy foreign ways, I bet that those of you who grew up in places with exotic names like Scunthorpe or Chipping Dogsbollox don't recall happy scenes from your childhood of statues being bedecked with garlands of asparagus come the harvest, or maidens skipping back from the fields with baskets -- but you get the picture.
Hype notwithstanding, Steve and I quite like asparagus anyway, so when we moved to our current house in Westbourne Terrace, we planted some. A modest little bed, about a square yard, which we work hard to defend from ravenous snails, megalomaniac weeds and cats with full bladders.
I still wouldn't have thought any more of the recent spate of asparagus-pushing if I had not had to spend a few days in Holland.
I am currently seated in my eyrie on the 13th floor of the Novotel, Brainpark, Rotterdam. Not noticeably superstitious, the Dutch, I'll give them that.
Surrounded by a décor that would have made Austin Benson, Fan Of Mystery, feel right at home, I look out at a view reminiscent of California, right down to the smog, but with more water. Rotterdam is flat, being built on what probably used to be jolly good fishing grounds, and new, mostly through the intervention of the Second World War. And currently in the grip of asparagus mania.
Back in England, the hapless natives are merely subjected to campaigns of unrelenting politeness by the likes of Waitrose and Sainsbury's, genteelly suggesting that asparagus is actually rather good at this time of year, when it's in season and all that, and wouldn't it be jolly nice to give these exciting new recipe ideas a bit of a whirl, what?
Not so, the Dutch. Not noticeably subtle, the Dutch. On every side I am assailed by images, nay, actual samples of asparagus of truly dildonic proportions. It was on offer at every meal, and featured in every course. It took me a while to work out what these strangely textured, Vaseline-coloured things were. They are obviously grown in the dark, where they spend their lives in stygian gloom, sprouting vestigial eye stalks that grow huge in a desperate attempt to gather in what light there may be. During processing the eyes are removed, giving them the above-mentioned strange appearance and the asparagus is immediately tinned. The Dutch don't believe it's food if it hasn't spent some time in a tin.
Mind you, this observation could be due to the nature of my visit, which was to the headquarters of a mysterious and shadowy giant of the processed meal industry. Wherever you find food served in little rectangular plastic dishes, chances are it was created in the high tech, cavernous, underground laboratories of my hosts, who shall remain nameless. We're not having another Z*n*c* incident here, thank you.
Anyway, my culinary experiences were restricted to a certain staff canteen, KLM and Novotel, which may not have been truly representative of Dutch cuisine -- I never saw any rijstafel, for instance. But I bet Holland doesn't have a long tradition of maidens skipping over the fjords, or whatever, all gaily bedecked with ribbons as they bring in the asparagus harvest, either.
But there's no denying the recent asparagus evangelism. A colleague of Steve's reported a similar phenomenon in Germany. It's just that what is being foisted onto people by these international corporations bears so little resemblance to real asparagus. And, in the light of a mysterious visitor we recently received, it makes me... uneasy.
One fine Saturday a few weeks ago, 52 Westbourne Terrace suffered a plague of rabbit. This rabbit must have weighed ten pounds, it was nearly as big as George. It sat in our asparagus patch, rather, it sat on our asparagus patch, twitched its dear little nose, preened its large floppy ears... and ate. Steve and I watched in disbelief from an upstairs window, paralysed by the overwhelming cuteness of it. Before we could shake off the strange lethargy induced by this apparition, a couple of cats with full bladders appeared. Obviously immune to its lapine charms, they briskly saw it off the premises.
Was this an isolated incident? Or was it part of a world-wide plan to destroy domestic asparagus crops and make us dependent on strange, genetically-modified, glow-in-the-dark pseudo-asparagus?
Only time will tell.
But in the meantime... watch the veg.
--Giulia de Cesare