Asparagus, once known as the food of kings, raised a real stink in a normally peaceful little city in the West Midlands of England last week. Rather, it was Gus raising the stink — Gus the Asparagus Man.
The upset was this: Asparagus is very important to the community of Worcester. A special variety of asparagus — Vale of Evesham Asparagus (you can tell it's important by all the caps on the name) — has been grown there since medieval times. It's so special, the pedigreed darling has been granted protected name status by the European Union, much like Champagne and Cognac, although soon no one will give a toss about that bit of fluff, what with Brexit full steam ahead.
Regardless, protected and special it remains. So special the entire shire, Worcestershire, to be exact, (yes, that's got a familiar ring, to be confirmed if you jump up right now and check your condiment shelf) has an annual asparagus festival that runs from April 23 through to the first day of summer.
To celebrate its local veg-lebrity, Worcester Cathedral blesses the asparagus in a special service, and this year Gus stole the show. Dressed, he says, like a spear of asparagus, although if you see the photos (www.britishasparagusfestival.org), he looks more like a green daisy with a green beard, Gus was part of the holy proceedings, to the chagrin of many. Although he's been part of the service for years, for some reason all hell broke loose this time.
"This is an absurd pantomime-type scene that makes a mockery of Christian worship." said the spokesperson of one stalwart Christian group. "An infantile pantomime" invoked another as though they had been reading each other's minds, I mean, tweets.
On the criticism went, mostly calling up the hilarious shrubbery scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. (Although The Telegraph newspaper cites one more original condemnation: "Total prats!" I'll have to look that up.)
But if you heard Gus interviewed on CBC's As It Happens, I think you would have heard what I did: A very sincere asparagus farmer who couldn't understand what all the fuss was about, especially since he'd been doing the same thing for years. Must be something in the water, given all the new chapters these days in The Culture of Complaint.
Who knows if Gus will dare show his green face again next year, what with so many outsiders having so much to say about Worcester's long-standing festival. If so, I'm sure yet another stink will rise, irony intended.
"Sparagrass eaten to Excess sharpen the Humours and heat a little; and therefore Persons of a bilious constitution ought to use them moderately: They cause a filthy (!) and disagreeable smell in the Urine, as every Body knows," wrote the Frenchman Louis Lemery in his Treatise of All Sorts of Foods at the start of the 16th century. Note the picturesque name, "sparagrass" — spear of grass. And Gus is on track!
Asparagus has no leaves per se, ergo the distinctive plaited tips that resemble finely woven basketry or tiny chain mail. The effect is caused by asparagus's peculiar branches called phylloclades, which carry out photosynthesis and cluster near the growing tip of the immature stem. When we eat this early vegetable, we are actually eating the stem of a plant that's a member of the lily family. And lilies are a member of the grass family. "Sparagrass."
But M. Lemery is absolutely right. Asparagus can cause, well, maybe not a filthy, but often a disagreeable smell, a stink, if you will, in our pee.
Harold McGee in his fine book On Food and Cooking explains that from about the mid-1950s to the '80s scientific theory had it that if you excreted the odorous methyl mercaptan after eating asparagus, it was because you had a particular gene that rendered you a "stinker" so to speak.
Now scientists agree that everyone excretes methyl mercaptan after eating asparagus, it's the ability to detect it that varies amongst us. Likely it's a sulfur-containing amino acid, methionine, in the "sparagrass" that's the culprit. But that hasn't put people off enjoying it.
About 300 varieties of asparagus are native to areas from Siberia to southern Africa. A couple of African species are grown as ornamental plants (who hasn't had an asparagus fern in a planter?) Best known is the garden variety, asparagus offcinalsis, which thrives in subtropical and temperate climes, even Canada's.
The tasty spears of this hearty perennial push up from heavy root masses from early spring until warm weather sets in. Asparagus does grow from seed, but it takes three years to produce spears, so most gardeners start it from roots. They are hearty creatures, living up to 20 years.
For ages, literally, epicures have had a taste for asparagus. It was a delicacy in Greek and Roman times, an attitude that's carried forth even though it's now a hugely successful commercial crop. But in past times when demand outstripped supply, "poor man's" substitutes like young blackberry shoots and leeks were used.
France, Italy and the U.S. are the big asparagus growers today. It will often grow in soil too salty for other crops — kind of a boon for growers who render their soils alkaline from over-production. Since they grow at different rates, the spears must be harvested by hand, furthering the aura of delicacy and exclusivity.
Best way to cook: Stir-fry your spears fast in butter and oil. Finish with a bit of water to steam them under a tight-fitting lid for a minute. Add salt and a splash of good vinegar or lemon — that's it.
As for next year's asparagus season, here's hoping Gus stands tall. Good chance he will, what with his friend Jemima Packington, the world's first Asparamancer, able to tell the future by tossing a bundle of the lovely green spears in the air and reading how they land. Monty Python, anyone?
Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning journalist who is a stinker.