The Politics and Palatability of “Edible Ivory”
Unlike New York, which is periodically engulfed in mania for whimsically idiotic fashion—high heels with socks, couture track pants—Berlin is sensible about its collective frenzies, focusing on what really matters. Like asparagus. Anyone in the city now will notice that grocery stores, underground stands in the metro, and even café chalkboards from the corner Kneipe to upper-crust establishments are proudly boasting the fruits (er, veggies) of Spargelsaison, which officially began a couple weeks ago. Asparagus cream soup, asparagus-accompanied schnitzel, asparagus-topped linguini—the lists sound a bit like Bubba’s famous “shrimp” monolog in Forrest Gump. And this isn’t the enforced fixation of scarcity, a-lá the potato famine, but rather self-selected obsession. Germans love, love, love asparagus.
As Deutsche Welle reported recently, the national affection for “white gold” adds up to the world’s highest annual consumption, at about three pounds per person, as well as Europe’s highest production, at about 82,000 tons. This massive harvest is fueled by the domestic belief that “Made in Germany” means a tastier plant, a preference not present with respect to other crops like cauliflower. That is, asparagus is not merely a foodstuff but rather a point of national pride, occasioning statues in town squares and annual festivals like those in Effeld or Zerbst, the latter proudly boasting the “Asparagus-Peeling World Championship.”
Yet the treasured nutriment is not one hundred percent “German-made”—not if you want to credit the contribution of Poles and other Eastern Europeans who stream into their richer Western neighbor each spring. And not everyone is going mad from asparagus-induced ecstasy this year: Der Tagesspiegel reports that farm owners are dissatisfied with labor laws passed last year that require up to one fifth of the workers to be German. They claim that while Poles are willing to bend over sandy fields and dig out the stalks, German laborers either refuse the back-breaking labor or sign up but then play hooky when harvest time comes. This chronic absenteeism angers owners who say that the pay of 500-700 Euros a month is more than enough for non-native laborers, while unemployed German recipients of state welfare feel entitled to turn their noses up. And while the ethnic quota was only put into practice last year, some growers also claim that it has already scared away potential Polish workers who didn’t want to risk getting sent home.
One thing is certain, however: even if Germans would rather eat their food than harvest it, and Poles defect in droves to greener pastures, the country’s asparagus adoration isn’t going anywhere. And although I understand the convenience of having a completely innocuous symbol around which to rally in a place where nationalism was neutered post-WWII and is still not quite acceptable (although flags have made a comeback since last summer’s World Cup), I have to ask myself what, really, is the appeal.
If, like me, you grew up in the United States, you may have recoiled instinctively at the drained, ghostly pale rods, even more so at the hint of freakishly ultraviolet purple that some stalks bear. The preference for chlorophyll-free food strikes me and others who grew up with verdant veggies as frankly strange. One American asparagus-loving essayist on Salon paused her rhapsody with the following parenthetical:
“(What is white asparagus? It is grown in secret caves, as mushrooms are. It is a long, spooky fungus. It is naked and phallic. White vegetables do not make me want to live.)”
Actually, white asparagus isn’t grown in caves but rather underground, but I sympathize with the author’s disgust, as does the following American cooking website:
“White asparagus, as you know, is grown covered in mounds of sandy soil so that it never sees the light of day until the moment it is unmercifully hewn down.”
Wow. Those mean, mean German farmers. (Although, for the record, something cannot be “hewn down” if it never broke ground; it would be more accurate to say “cruelly plucked from the soil’s breast.”)
The white variety even costs more than the green variety, due to the labor-intensive cultivation. Despite the visual and pocketbook drawbacks, I was initially filled with curiosity about the collective asparagus euphoria. I decided to try some, only to discover that it was…okay. It wasn’t the revelation I’d been hoping for, merely a somewhat less full-bodied version of the green type I’d grown up eating. Full disclosure: it was also cooked by an American. The next step would be to try some authentically German-prepared (and Polish-harvested) Spargel. Feel free to post recommendations here about what dishes, local restaurants, recipes, etc. bring the earth’s bounty to its fullest glory.
Meanwhile, Michael Pollan wrote yet another scathing indictment of American food culture for the New York Times Magazine last week, bemoaning the Farm Bill’s heavy subsidies to corn growers and lack of support to vegetable farmers. Compared to the embarrassingly expensive carrots and cheap soda pop Pollan discusses, all this asparagus hubbub looks pretty good. The next question is, of course, whether the mania will arrive stateside any time soon. Transplanted German Hans Röckenwagner tried to serve the washed-out stalks in up to 75% of the dishes in his eponymous Los Angeles restaurant, which he later shuttered to reopen a “hipper” bistro, then later still, a bakery. One possible conclusion: the Amis didn’t bite. Our tastes remain green, but perhaps it’s better that way--after all, we have our own issues to nationally fixate on, like the comeback of leggings, or Britney's time in rehab.