Post by Evan Rieth
As a child, I was never too fond of my veggies. Much to my mother’s dismay, when offered a plate of particularly (then) repulsive vegetables, I would spin them around on my plate to give them the appearance of attempted consumption. Try as I might, the gag reflex in 10-year-olds for anything with nutritional value was certainly alive and well in my esophagus and simply would not allow me to choke down more than a few green beans at a time. At that stage in my life, I used a look on those vegetables I now reserve for things truly repulsive, like homework.
Over the years, my disposition towards vegetables has slowly traversed to the other side of the spectrum. I would go through spurts of obsession over each vegetable as I came to like it, similar to the way fashionistas change their style, the only difference being that none of the pop-culture magazines wanted to feature my pickled okra. This cycle began with my acceptance of beets as a viable food source, and soon accelerated to nothing less than infatuation. I grew three different plots of beets that year, and we prepared them in just about any way you can think of — baked, sautéed, juiced and even blended into smoothies (note: yogurt and beets have a combative chemistry that is not kind to the stomach).
This cycle of vegetable passion rotated through most of the vegetables grown in common midwestern gardens, and I can remember, with varying degrees of detail, the moment when I first tried a vegetable and liked it. The memory of when I first tried asparagus can be brought to the forefront of my consciousness far more easily than the antiderivatives of inverse trig functions, a fact my calculus grade happily reminds me of.
The first time my taste buds welcomed asparagus was a day in early spring. It was one of those days in spring when it felt like winter might not last forever, when the air is alive with smell of life on the cusp of fecundity.It was on one of these days I returned from track practice, stepped over the threshold of our kitchen and smelled something distinctly… springy. The air was filled with a steamy sweetness, the comfort of butter and the slightly bitter scent of frying chloroplasts. It was asparagus, and I was wholly seduced. The taste of asparagus when eaten on the day it is cut is a flavor I am convinced cannot be obtained through any other means — Sweet like August sweet corn, tender and green like a spring salad.
The reason for this unique flavor comes from how asparagus is cultivated and harvested. While most vegetables we eat are the end result of a plant’s life cycle (it’s fruit, seed or tuber), asparagus is harvested and eaten at the beginning of its life cycle. Asparagus is a perennial, meaning that it comes up year after year as a result of its clever use of a bulb like object (called a crown) to store sugars to kickstart the plant’s growth the next year. When the asparagus spear thrusts its way through the damp soil, it has all of last summer’s sunlight aiding it in its zealous quest to become a woody, mature plant with red berries that looks something like a pre-decorated, ferny christmas tree.
Under human control, however, the asparagus plant has to go through quite an ordeal before it can reach its mature stage. When the plant is only a few days old, it is cut before it can go into “christmas-tree stage.” This cutting of the plant triggers a sort of biological green-light that forces the plant to send up another shoot, using the summer sugars stored up in its crown. This, my friends, is how we get the food we know and love, the repeated suppression and discouragement of baby asparagus. I’m surprised such an issue hasn’t made it into the presidential debate.
Unfortunately, the growth suppression of asparagus is not at the top of the national political agenda. However, what should be on at least each individual’s agenda is not how we grow asparagus (though this is important) but when we eat it and where it comes from.
To put this into perspective, it was just last week that I saw asparagus pop up on the menu of Baldwin Dining Hall. In fact, I have seen it appear at least once a month since I came to campus in September. As I mentioned, asparagus is a uniquely spring crop, since it requires a dormant winter period. How is it then, that we see asparagus popping up as side dishes each week in Baldwin?
The answer lies in the peculiarity of the reversal of seasons in the Southern Hemisphere, and California agriculture. When it is autumn here in Albion, it is spring in Chile, Argentina and Peru. The asparagus there is cut and shipped (via airplane, to ensure relative freshness) to your neighborhood supermarket’s produce section or dining hall. In autumn/early winter then, we are getting our asparagus from South America; starting in January, it comes from California. Processes like this allow, to some degree, for one to have access to fresh fruits and vegetables year-round, presumably for healthier eating. This development, of having fresh fruits and vegetables year-round is something relatively new in the food marketplace. It is also a development that has consequences that aren’t readily visible as we eat our asparagus almondine in February.
For instance, there is the issue of how it got here — airplane travel. If we are going to have our fresh asparagus in February, we need to use airplanes. If we did not use air transportation, the asparagus simply wouldn’t be able to get here quickly enough. Asparagus is best eaten on the day it is picked, ideally within a few hours of being picked. Each day after the first, the sugars in it begin turning to starch; it becomes more stringy and less tender and takes on a bitter, rather sulfurous flavor. That’s a long winded way of saying asparagus goes downhill quickly after the first day. The fact that we can get asparagus from a field thousands of miles away to a grocery store near you in roughly a day or two is simply amazing — something nobody would’ve thought possible 100 years ago.
However, since we must use airplanes to transport asparagus here, it has a fairly large carbon footprint. A recent study done by the Journal for Industrial Ecology found that the carbon footprint of asparagus is 6.8 times greater than the next highest imported, out-of-season vegetable (avocados). In fact, asparagus has a higher carbon footprint than pork, veal, dairy, poultry or eggs, notoriously greenhouse-gas heavy foods. Our asparagus is dripping in fossil fuels. In today’s day and age of increasing environmental awareness, it is interesting to consider how asparagus has escaped scrutiny. I do not think we can justify transporting asparagus thousands of miles via fuel-guzzling, carbon-dioxide belching airplanes to satisfy our every impulsive culinary whim.
I see it as a sort of arrogance— an arrogance founded upon the idea that we need not be burdened by nature’s inconvenient cycles. An idea that has led us to believe we are entitled to have access to whatever food we want, whenever we want it. Take a stroll around the produce section of your local grocery and theseis should be apparent: the asparagus is from California, the raspberries are from South America and the clementines are from Spain. I doubt this can or will continue. Dwindling fossil fuels may soon sound the death-knell for the single-day transport of vegetables. The worst drought in California in 1200 years is just beginning to end, but aquifers there have been and are being drained far faster than they can be replenished, which puts into question the agricultural system that produces two-thirds of the nation’s produce. We have attempted to manipulate our food sources in a way that disregards the natural cycle of things and the resource limits of nature; We cannot.
Luckily for us, there is an alternative. Rather than ship in produce from locations that have opposite seasonal patterns than we do, it turns out we can grow many of the same fruits and vegetables in our local area. Fruits and vegetables grown locally have, to me, the foremost advantage of superior flavor. It is a constant and never-ceasing joy for me to taste the sun-warmed strawberry straight off the vine, the complex spiciness of baby arugula and the pleasant snap of a green bean plucked from the bush. The fruits and vegetables we receive from outside the local economy may resemble the local produce in size, shape, color and basic flavor but lack the complexity of taste.
To some, the idea of eating local produce seems great when it is possible but seems impossible when the seasons and growing conditions change, say, when the soil is under two feet of snow. This is not a new problem; it is as old as humanity itself. But in our ancestors’ case, they didn’t have the luxury of flying food in from wherever they chose. No, our ancestors canned, froze, dehydrated or otherwise preserved the bounties of their local area while it was in season and in abundance. They preserved the flavors and nutrients of spring, summer and autumn to hold them over winter until the cycle could begin again. And when the cycle did begin anew, what a joyous occasion it was and is.
Evidence of this can be found in every ramp (wild leek) festival, blueberry bash and peach parade that pepper the nation. These traditions arose not out of a chamber of commerce hoping to bring to tourists to an area but out of the jubilation communities felt when the first crop of the season was ready to eat. Historically, the first crop of a season was such an exuberant time that dancing and feasting on this crop would be the only logical thing to do.
Today however, it seems that these festivals have been perverted to the point where they are less about the appreciation for local agricultural bounty and more about the deep-fried food trucks, the controversial queen pageant and all-night beer tents. Now don’t get me wrong, deep-fried elephant ears will forever hold a special place in my heart (most cardiologists would say too special a place), but since we have year-round access to just about any fruit or vegetable we can think of, these local agricultural festivals don’t have the same ability to hold a captive audience like they used to. It appears that we have lost our ability to wait patiently and expectantly for something (in this case certain foods) we would really like to have, and consequently, it is the local land economy and our atmosphere that suffer greatly.
I am proposing this — minimize your consumption of fresh asparagus (or anything else imported from faraway lands) when it is not in season locally. Not only will you no longer be contributing to that nasty carbon footprint of asparagus, but you will garner within yourself a primal appreciation for foods as they come into season, a behavior as old as humanity itself. When local produce is in season, eat as much of it as you can until you no longer wish to see the site of it, and then buy more. Freeze, dehydrate, and can it till you tire. Then can one more batch. You’ll be glad you did when February rolls around. True health (for humans and the environment) and food security is not found in luscious produce sections with fake thunderstorms but in the larder that is singing with the bounty of a summer gone by — serving as a reminder to what was, and is and is to come. After all, good things (not the least of which is asparagus) come to those who wait.
Drawing by Jessie Rieth