As I laced up my running shoes I told my Mom: “I’ll be at the turn in the road where the asparagus grows in 15 minutes.” She didn’t seem to want to go unless everyone could come and went about trying to rally the scattered troops. I finally left, frustrated that mom was going to miss out on something she wanted because it wasn’t going to be perfect. “Let’s just do it!” I thought. “Why does it have to be all or nothing?” I made mental markers of various patches of roadside asparagus as I ran and shook my head that we wouldn’t pick it after all. And then, as I rounded that one dangerous corner where the road cuts sharply and you can’t see cars or pedestrians or even tractors from either direction, there was mom. There was mom!
Unimpressed by the options in this well-known hunting ground, we went back to where I had seen along my run. We set into the tall grasses on the side of the road, searching for spring’s first and easiest harvest. I say “first” because they come into season before most edibles. In fact, the Germans throw “spargel” festivals to celebrate the coming of spring (make a mental note, this is the best word in the German language). I say “easiest” because an asparagus in the field looks just like an asparagus in the grocery store– there’s no mental translation needed– and they stick right up along the roadside, no hands-and-knees searching, no thorn-dodging and no bushwhacking necessary. We did worry about ticks though.
The wind was brisk and exhilarating. With nothing else to blow at across those acres of empty cornfield, it took its energy out on us. It leveled the weak weeds and exposed the thick asparagus stalks, which barely bowed against the strong breeze. Before long, I had a beautiful bouquet of green deliciousness. Mom and I toasted each other with a fresh-picked piece and took a bite of fresh-from-the-dirt produce. It tasted like pesticides.
This late in the season, a lot of the asparagus is overripe, the dark tips tightly-clustered leaves have spread out, extending into their own separate branches. I’m not dismayed, I’m glad that some of the stalks made it to maturity before I got to them so there’ll be more for next year. And I’ve discovered that these taller plants are snitches– all around them I can find many younger perfectly-seasoned sprouts concealed by the grasses. I never would have seen them without help.
When you pick asparagus (asparagi?), you bend the stalk close to the ground, and it gives way just exactly where it’s meant to, right between the white woody and the green meaty parts. The snap is satisfying.
A man pulled up in his car and half shouted: “are you searching for aspara-grass?” I showed him the bundle in my hands and he proceeded to tell me that mom and I were way off, that there was more to be found down the road. He wasn’t to be trusted, since any good roadside harvester will guard their hunting ground with care, and sure enough, when we checked it out, we found nothing but thick-blunt stalks that had already been taken home for salads and barbecues and seasonal centerpieces.
With our family dinner that night, we had a side of spargel.
This is the reason I have been staring at medians as I drive the highway the past few months. This is the reason I have been carefully marking their slow transition from dirty snow to brittle twigs to vibrant weeds. When I see these signs I know exactly what I have to do: go back home to Chelsea, wade through the roadside weeds with mom, and gather a beautiful green bundle of spring.