When I think of asparagus, I think of spring. I also think of California. Not necessarily in that order. Okay, it is one of the first produce crops to appear after the winter and for folks thinking seasonally, those green (or purple) stalks are a welcome sight at markets. Indeed, supermarkets often promote asparagus (perhaps as a loss leader) in springtime sales flyers. But in the Flyover States, those supermarket spears often originate from California (or Washington State). Or so I thought. Did you know that Michigan is actually the third largest producer of asparagus in the United States? I didn’t know either. Why Michigan? Well, growing asparagus requires soils that drain well, so the sandy soils of Michigan certainly meet that requirement. Think about Michigan’s location: It’s not THE Great Lakes State for nothing! Michigan shares boundaries with four of the Great Lakes: Huron, Superior, Erie, and, of course, Michigan. Sorry, Ontario!
The Great Lakes are a remnant of the last glaciation and retreat, forming when the Laurentide ice sheet retreated. And the soils of Michigan reflect the materials carried by the glacier and left behind when it receded–silts and sands and stuff, oh my! Also, the soils should freeze occasionally, so again, Michigan fits the bill. But here’s a question–is my supermarket asparagus from my neighbor to the north (given that I’m in Indiana, that neighbor would be Michigan). So, I took a trip to my local supermarket to see from where the asparagus they proffer for sale actually originates. Turns out, my local Marsh supermarket stocks asparagus from California. At least it isn’t China (the world’s largest producer) or Peru (number two in production). Fortunately for me, I’ve got access to wonderful local asparagus!
Asparagus is native to Europe, Africa (North), and parts of Asia. It didn’t really appear in the United States until the mid-19th century. Asparagus has been considered both a food and a medicine, as well as an aphrodisiac, no doubt owing to its rather phallic appearance.
In much of Europe (Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, Belgium, etc.), asparagus is eaten as a white vegetable, renowned for its tenderness and flavor. I recall the excitement of Spargelzeit (asparagus time) in Germany, where it was served with hollandaise sauce. Americans typically eat the plant green. Interestingly, both white and green asparagus are cultivated from the same plant—to keep asparagus white, shoots are kept covered to prevent exposure to the sun (and thus keeping the process of photosynthesis from occurring).
I love asparagus, especially roasted or grilled! On my first trip to the farmers market of the outdoor season, I stumbled across—not literally—local PURPLE asparagus.
The grower told me that other customers found the purple variety (and it is a different variety) a bit sweeter. Ever the foodie, I bought a bunch and roasted them (recipe in the next post). The verdict? Yes, sweeter and full of flavor. And I love the color!
- Asparagus is often sold in bunches affixed by a rubber band. Remove the band toward the bottom (where the stalks have been cut off) or simply snip the band with a pair of scissors to avoid damaging the asparagus tips.
- To keep your asparagus fresh if not using immediately, place the stalks in a jar or glass with some water, then put the glass/jar in the refrigerator.