Spargelmania: Germans and asparagus
Why does Germany go loopy every spring over the humble asparagus?
If you were a newcomer to Germany with a slender grasp of the language, you might find yourself, upon dining out in late spring, wondering what this mysterious 'Spargel' foodstuff was. Every dish on every restaurant blackboard in every German city on every day from late April to mid-June is based around this enigmatic ingredient, and not for cheap either.
In the absence of your dictionary you are reduced to speculation. Is it caviar? Truffles? Puffer fish? Whatever it is, it must be exotic and exciting and well worth the extravagant sums the restaurant is demanding.
So when the waiter comes, you point a trembling finger at one of the intriguing Spargel concoctions and wait with a watering mouth to see what delights will appear.
On the edge of your seat, you watch your plate approach across the room. As it is tantalisingly lowered onto your table, you spot some boiled potatoes, a slice of ham, and then, immersed in a golden lake of Hollandaise sauce, a few sprigs of … asparagus? Your slavering jaw drops. This is what all the excitement is about? This is what they are charging EUR 13.90 for?
But for that price this must be special asparagus, you decide. Maybe asparagus in Germany, like pizza in Italy or deep-fried Mars bars in Scotland, is incomparable with knock-off dishes found elsewhere. German asparagus is surely some kind of ambrosia from the vegetable gods.
So using the special asparagus cutlery the waiter has provided, you cut off a chunk of a spear and place it carefully in your drooling mouth. You bite, you chew, you swallow. You reflect. It's okay, you think. It tastes fine. But why all the fuss?
Why indeed? No matter how long an expat lives in Germany, there are certain things, like the word Mahlzeit or German tax forms, which will always remain unfathomable. Asparagus is one of those things. Why should an entire nation greet the coming into season of a lowly vegetable with the same enthusiasm other countries reserve for new wines or game birds? Considering Germany's low birth rates, the reputed aphrodisiac properties of this most phallic of vegetables can't be the only reason.
The depth of the asparagus fever during Spargelzeit is certainly astounding. Improvised market stalls selling the white spears in buckets spring up outside railway stations and next to busy roads. Restaurants give over whole menus to the vegetable. Shops sell special asparagus serving dishes and utensils--you couldn't just serve the 'king of vegetables' in any old container, now could you?
Just to prove that Asparagus officinalis is really a cultural icon and not merely a humble vegetable, it has been graced with that most authoritative of modern institutions: the museum. And not just one museum, but two, in the fabled asparagus grounds of Schrobenhausen and Beelitz, where the local asparagus temple extravagantly aims to "celebrate the asparagus as source and object of eating pleasure, trade and also art."
Despite the impenetrable attraction of the spears for Germans, there are two reasons why the asparagus is worthy of your respect. The first is the fact that the asparagus business provides a rare example of pro-Polish bias among Germans. Most of the asparagus is cut by hard-working Polish seasonal workers, who farmers vociferously prefer to "unreliable" German workers. Given prevalent German stereotypes of the Poles, the more of this kind of cross-border co-operation Germany gets, the better.
The second reason relates to the very transience of the asparagus craze. The asparagus season ends on 24 June, the feast day of St. John the Baptist, after which the white stalks disappear from shops and menus.
Now, when was the last time any fruit or vegetable disappeared from a British supermarket, where the only thing marking the passing seasons is a change in the country of origin stickers? Whatever your feelings about asparagus, you have to respect Germans for sticking to the quaint tradition of eating food in season. In the globalised era, perhaps that is something to get excited about after all.
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