As the ground warms in April, it forces new life to the surface, sending up daffodils, tulips and my personal favorite of all spring perennials: asparagus. The early tips - fleshy and tender as they always are at the beginning of the season - began poking through the soil in clusters last weekend, a sure indicator of a bountiful crop.
While I fantasize about having more asparagus than we can possibly eat, I understand that not everyone shares this passion. At the same time, I can't tell whether the asparagus detractors are a significant segment of the eating population, as I don't think anyone polls for this sort of thing. Without hard data, we are left to speculate, which is more fun anyway.
Also, I sense that people who don't like asparagus keep it to themselves for fear of seeming culinarally incorrect. There's nothing more humiliating than being ostracized by an asparagus-loving foodie. At fancy dinners, I occasionally notice someone gently sliding stalks of asparagus over to the side of the plate, attempting to be inconspicuous. This is wasted subtlety, because asparagus lovers always notice. It's all we can do not to lean over and whisper, "So, if you're not going to be eating that ..."
Asparagus has at least four things going against it, which might explain some people not seeing asparagus as spring's finest gift. Strike 1 is its price, which can be steep unless you grow your own. But once you plant some asparagus crowns in the back yard, which should be done in early spring, you will have a free supply of asparagus for the rest of your life. Still, the price probably has kept some people from trying it.
The second knock on asparagus results from negative perceptions about its texture. This really says more about the people who select the asparagus spears and the way they cook them than about the vegetable itself. If asparagus is not young and fresh, it will not be tender. After it stands unpicked in the yard or lies in the produce department too long, it becomes stringy, tough and dry.
The flip side of this texture problem is in the cooking. Many people simply leave it on the stove way too long. In just a few minutes, asparagus can turn to mush, and there's nothing charming about eating it then. The goal is always to serve it either al dente, when it is still slightly crisp, or when it is just beginning to go soft in the center.
Because asparagus can only be cooked so much, it fails miserably as a canned vegetable. People who have only eaten it canned have not had the same taste experience.
The flavor of asparagus is the third obstacle for some people. While I loved asparagus the first time I tasted it, the flavor is strong and distinctive and I can see where it might not appeal to everyone. For some people, asparagus may be an acquired taste, but I suspect that bad experiences with overcooked or tough asparagus and lack of familiarity may be factors here as well.
The fourth strike is the delicate problem with the way asparagus makes the urine smell approximately 30 minutes after the meal. Asparagus contains an amino acid that produces a distinctive odor during the digestive process. Notably, this same amino acid is an ingredient in the defensive spray that skunks emit.
While the kidneys rid the body of this aroma in a few hours, some people think twice about eating asparagus because of it, especially if they will be using a public restroom. I was stunned to learn the extent to which people obsess about this odor issue. A Google search on the words "asparagus" and "urine" yielded 121,000 links. That's more than 12,000 pages of entries.
While the size of the anti-asparagus contingent is a mystery, I do know that the fans of asparagus are numerous enough to have persuaded many Midwestern farmers markets to start selling in April, a month earlier than they used to. Under the old farmers market calendar, vendors didn't start setting up their booths until May, when the asparagus crop had run its course.
Now the asparagus crop, the edible harbinger of spring, kicks off the gardening season at many local markets. It certainly does so in my kitchen as well.