Asparagus: Explained

(Photo: Associated Press)

April might be the cruelest month, but it’s very kind to asparagus. The slender, elegant vegetable comes into season now, bringing joy to the hearts of its fans and stinkiness to their bathrooms. To mark the arrival of peak asparagus, TBD has compiled a brief cultural, agricultural, and economic history of the spears in the U.S. and abroad.

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Asparagus, the plant

A hardy perennial, asparagus is planted in April or May. After a lengthy maturity period (three years!), the plant will go on to produce spears for more than a decade. Charles Maes of the Canby Asparagus Farm in Oregon says he can harvest his asparagus plants for 25 years.

Most asparagus grown in the U.S. is green, though there is a white variety called European asparagus. Because it’s grown without sun, the European model is higher-maintenance, more expensive, and, in Maes’ opinion, less tasty. “The taste is more bitter,” says Maes. “It doesn’t have the nutrients that the green has.” Asparagus can also be purple, but Maes says it turns green when cooked.

California’s asparagus crop is coming into season now, but Virginia has a little longer to wait for locally grown spears. A lifelong asparagus farmer from Fredericksburg, Emmett Snead judges peak seasonality by the migration of the martin bird. Once they return, “you usually have asparagus within three weeks,” he explains. “It’s funny how that works.” The martins just returned April 3, the latest Snead has ever seen. He anticipates asparagus by the last week in April, with peak time during the first two weeks of May.

Asparagus, consumer product

When buying asparagus, girth is key. “The best asparagus is the fat asparagus,” declares Maes. “If it’s thicker than your index finger, that’s what you want.”

Maes cautions against “baby asparagus,” which he calls a recent phenomenon. “That’s what we used to call the cauls,” he says of the small stalks. “That’s the throwaway asparagus. It’s stringier. It’s nothing.” But with “baby” veggies in vogue, farmers saw a marketing opportunity. “There is no baby asparagus,” he says. “That’s just a thing that we made up, you see what I’m saying?”

Asparagus, former status symbol

“Asparagus once upon a time used to be a rich man’s vegetable,” says Maes. In the 1950s, when minimum wage sat between $1 and $2 an hour, asparagus was $1 pound, or nearly $9 in today's money. “Who could afford a dollar a pound when you’re making a dollar an hour?” he asks.

But in 1991, the U.S. government removed tariffs on asparagus from Peru as part of the war on drugs—the hope was that Peruvian farmers would start growing more asparagus and stop growing coca leaves. Produced with lower labor costs, cheap Peruvian vegetables flooded the U.S. market. The domestic farmer was forced to drop prices to compete, and prices have remained low.

“We’re paying $2.49 a pound, $3.98 a pound, maybe $4 a pound. That’s about its peak, price-wise,” says Maes. “You can get it as cheap as 98 cents a pound.” Though prices have dropped, Maes says the vegetable has maintained a “very fine image” and remains a symbol of elegance. “It’s the king of the vegetables,” he declares.

Snead sells his asparagus at slightly higher prices than one might see in California, Oregon, and Michigan, where domestic asparagus growth is concentrated. Snead wasn’t forced to lower his prices when the market crashed in the 1990s, he explains, because Virginia doesn’t have many commercial asparagus farmers. Enough people are willing to buy locally to keep him in business, even if his asparagus is $4 a pound.

Asparagus, stinkifier of pee

A perennial piece of science trivia, the link between eating asparagus and producing strange-smelling pee has been documented for several hundred years. Once ingested, asparagus produces chemicals as it metabolizes. The chemicals infuse the eater’s urine with a sulfur-like aroma within 15-30 minutes.

It's often alleged that asparagus does not affect the urine of all people. Actually, asparagus behaves the same way chemically in all people, but not everyone has the gene to be able to detect its funky scent. So your pee does smell funny, even if you can’t smell it. In an interesting point of national differences, 100 percent of French people in a study could identify the distinctive asparagus odor in their urine, but only 46 percent of Brits could. Make of that what you will.

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