I picked up some asparagus from the store yesterday. It must have been nice and fresh. When I washed it, it produced that satisfying squeak that is so characteristic to the vegetable (one of only two common vegetables that are a perennial, in fact.) Perhaps you aren’t familiar with that particular sound, or maybe you just never noticed it. But that sound, along with the unique odor of freshly cut asparagus, reliably dredge up all sorts of memories for me.
The memories are all about early, optimistic spring days out on County A. The boxelder tree would still be just beginning to bud, and the grape hyacinths foolishly braving the capricious weather. Those April days, Dad was up well before any of the rest of us, to hand-pick the acre of asparagus out back behind the house. The process was repeated in the evening, sometimes with Mom’s help, depending on the ages and temperaments of the kids that year.
That acre of asparagus was their investment in our future. With five kids and a firefighter’s salary, setting aside college savings out of the regular paycheck just wasn’t a reality. So, somewhere, Mom and Dad got the idea of planting asparagus and selling it by word-of-mouth to local gourmands and housewives. Right around the time the robins returned, the white kitchen phone began ringing a few times per day, with people looking to put in their orders. Many bought in bulk of forty to fifty pounds, blanching and freezing massive amounts of the vegetable to get them through the winter months. Others bought smaller amounts, reveling in the fresh produce. It was CSA before that was a thing. They never advertised, and the business operated on an honors system.
Seemingly overnight, stalks ready for picking emerged. Dad walked the rows, cutting each stalk one by one, piling them up in old laundry baskets at the ends of the rows. Once he walked the entire field, he carried the overflowing baskets over to the spigot and hose. He sprayed the dirt off the bottoms through the gaps in the baskets, positioning his thumb just so over the end of the hose. The cold water pooled in well-worn rivulets in the gravel driveway, and the dog of the moment stopped for a drink of the icy cold, metallic well water.
By then, we kids were awake and getting ready for school. Whoever was ready first got to work helping him. I remember this often being me; I was both the oldest and the most obsessed with earliness. Dad set up a little workflow station in the detached garage. This consisted of an old chair holding a spring-loaded scale from who knows where, topped by a hospital-issued plastic washbasin. These were hoarded from any hospital visit, being just the right size to hold the four pounds bundles into which we packaged the asparagus. For anyone who remembers, these plastic hospital kits also included emesis basins and pitchers, also hoarded for future use dispensing water into cups next to our beds (pitcher) and as weird dress-up accessories (emesis basins). We were a thrifty, very bored lot.
Dad loaded the freshly-washed stalks into the yellow tub, adding and subtracting a few to get to four pounds. Then, with that characteristic squeak, he gathered all four pounds in his huge hands, holding the ends out to me. I already prepared a rubber band, bought in bulk from the Farm and Fleet, stretching it out over my hands, cat’s cradle style. The goal was to loop the rubber band front-to-back over the damp ends, trying hard not to splatter the dirty water onto my school clothes, while the asparagus noisily settled into position. I don’t think we talked about much, per usual for Dad, and the asparagus provided most of the noise.
Dad stood the bundles on end in pools of water in one of those indispensable wash basins. If there was time, we’d throw the ball around. The best was when Dad would lean sideways and somehow launch the ball into a pop-up, higher than the barn roof. I still don’t know how he did that. After we went to school, Dad set out orders for people, their names scribbled on the grocery bags into which they would pack their bundles. If he was around when they came by, he’d help them load up. Otherwise, the customers left their cash tucked under the scale on the chair.
They kept track of the asparagus crop in a ledger that lived on top of the microwave, along with Dad’s refereeing calendar and other things that were important enough to be stored on the microwave, a patented Bier father system. My Uncle Jim has a similar setup, except the brains of his operation reside on the counter of the bathroom just off of his mudroom. I’m pretty sure my Grandpa had a similar system.
Some years they’d harvest thousands of pounds of asparagus off of that one acre, in the brief, month-long growing season. For most of my growing up, they charged $1 per pound. At the close of asparagus picking, the plants were allowed to “go to seed,” forming ferny plants that reached six feet tall, creating a delightful world in which we kids created all sorts of adventures. For me, that particular pastime ended the year I was walking in the field and accidentally stepped into a Killdeer nest, smashing the brooding eggs. The mother was several yards off, trying to lure me away in the uniquely Kildeer way, by feigning injury in the hope that I, a presumed predator, would go after her and not her nest. When I stepped on her eggs, she took flight, and I raced to the house, certain that I was about to be attacked in a a Hitchcockian way. I was afraid to go near the asparagus field the rest of the summer.
Later on, there was the added problem of the geese. Apparently, geese will eat most vegetation but not asparagus. So the six hellions were brought on to keep the weeds down in the asparagus field. I’m not sure how much they helped, but they crapped everywhere and attacked viciously if you came within ten feet of them. Some other time I’ll tell you about how the goose population inspired my brother’s lifelong fear of birds. They were mean to each other, too, always having one goose who was the whipping boy of the rest of the flock, missing feathers where the others attacked it. When the second-to-last goose died off years later, the loner became remarkably docile and lonely. He waited for Dad outside the back door and followed him around placidly. Dad called him Henry, and Henry was officially relieved of any asparagus duties.
We kids were never allowed to help harvest with the retired serrated steak knives set aside for the purpose. Dad said that if we cut the young stalks incorrectly, it’d screw up their continued regeneration for the rest of the growing season. I’m pretty sure, though, that it was because this was a big, years-long gift for us, and who asks someone to help “buy” their own gift? Nope, the task was reserved for my parents, waking up before sunrise to walk the rows of optimistic growth, secretly squirreling away money for the five kids screaming at each other up in the house.