Stalking Asparagus

March 17, 2006

CUESA intern and long-time market enthusiast, Jane Tunks, wrote this week’s feature.

Springtime at the farmers’ market brings many things: strawberries, green garlic and the last of the mandarins (sniff!). But perhaps the most anticipated harbinger of warm weather is the season’s first asparagus. When soil temperatures reach 50 degrees, the slender shoots emerge from the ground, leaving no doubt that spring has arrived. This year’s crop has suffered some delays due to the unseasonably cold weather, which made us want to learn more about this spring delicacy.

The word asparagus stems from the Persian word asparag, or sprout. The plant has been cultivated for more than 2,000 years, and the people of Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire used asparagus medicinally, for preventing bee stings and soothing toothaches. The vegetable thrived all over the Eastern Mediterranean for hundreds of years, finally making its way to France during the reign of Louis the XIV, who loved the tender stalks so much that he had greenhouses built just so he could eat asparagus out of season. Asparagus arrived in the US along with the European immigrants of the 19th century. Today, California leads the nation in asparagus production; the marshy conditions of the Sacramento Delta are perfectly suited to the labor-intensive crop.

Prized for their tender, edible stalks, asparagus spears are actually the shoots of a perennial plant that is a member of the lily family. Growing asparagus is a long and arduous process, which explains why it can sometimes be expensive. Even on large commercial farms, workers hand-harvest each spear, and it takes two or more years for the first asparagus to appear after its seeds are sown.

Asparagus comes in hues of green, purple and white. Though green is the most common color in American markets, 55 percent of asparagus around the world is white. Harvested from the same plants as green asparagus, white asparagus has simply been deprived of sunlight. The lack of light prevents the production of chlorophyll, blanching the stalks. Asparagus can be sheltered from the sun by either mounding soil over the emerging shoots or suspending thick black plastic over the crop’s rows. Though white asparagus is tougher than its green counterpart, it also has a more delicate flavor.

Zuckerman Farms and Fairview Gardens will be selling asparagus at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market this Saturday, so try their delicious stalks grilled, steamed, or boiled. You can also celebrate spring’s arrival at our first-ever Asparagus Fest. Learn about how asparagus grows, sample different types, and chat with farmer Roscoe Zuckerman from Zuckerman’s Farm and Marla Witcher from Fairview Gardens about the art of growing this unusual plant. Chef Lulu Yang will share cooking tips and recipes for quick and easy asparagus toppings. A $1 donation to benefit CUESA’s educational programs will garner you a special seasonal treat: grilled asparagus on a buttery soft Acme Bread roll. This event will take place in CUESA’s Dacor teaching kitchen under the arcade north of the Ferry Building’s clock tower.

Some Interesting Asparagus Facts

Up until the 16th century, French gardeners believed that burying a sheep’s horn in the fields would ensure better asparagus.
Ancient Egyptians grew asparagus as an offering to the gods.
Many cultures, from the Arabs to the French, extol the aphrodisiac powers of asparagus.
An asparagus spear can grow up to 10 inches in 24 hours.