Friday, December 16, 2011

The Curious Case of the Wild Asparagus (Foraging with The New Yorker)

The New Yorker magazine recently joined the throng of publications touting foraging as a thrilling throwback activity that connects us to our savage roots even as it lends cachet to the menus at some of the world's most talked-about--and expensive--restaurants. Jane Kramer penned this piece; you can read the full article here. It's an interesting article, very New Yorker-ish, as you might expect.

This passage I've quoted below struck me as odd when I first read it. I read it again, and then I understood why. It's an example, I think, of how the aura of something can fog the reality of it. Any avid forager or gardener will likely see what I saw. I'm eager to hear your reactions. A little puzzle for the weekend.

...we turned onto a quiet road that wound through fields of alfalfa and wheat and soon-to-be-blooming sunflowers, and parked next to a shuttered and, by all evidence, long-abandoned farmhouse that I had passed so often over the years that I thought of it as my house and dreamed of rescuing it.

Foraging places are like houses. Some speak to you, others you ignore. I wasn’t surprised that the land around that tumbledown house spoke to Paterson. He jumped out of the car, peered over a thicket of roadside bush and sloe trees, and disappeared down a steep, very wet slope before I had even unbuckled my seat belt—after which he emerged, upright and waving, in an overgrown copse enclosed by a circle of trees. Cleared, the copse would have provided a shady garden for a farmer’s family. To a forager, it was perfect: a natural rain trap, sheltered against the harsh sun, and virtually hidden from the road. Everywhere we turned, there were plants to gather. Even the wild asparagus, which usually hides from the sun in a profusion of other plants’ leaves and stalks, was so plentiful that you couldn’t miss it. We filled a shopping bag.

Wild asparagus has a tart, ravishing taste—what foragers call a wilderness taste—and a season so short as to be practically nonexistent. It’s as different from farmed asparagus as a morel is from the boxed mushrooms at your corner store.

From A Reporter at Large: The Food at Our Feet: Why is foraging all the rage? by Jane Kramer
The New Yorker magazine, November 21, 2011


el said...

Shady, sun-sheltered rain trap? Clearly this person has never grown even a tomato if that's her ideal of something that would feed "a farmer's family." And she knows absolutely nothing of asparagus if she thinks they only grow below other plants. I love the New Yorker because its articles are often so divorced from reality: a true provincial rag, but they surely don't think so.

And I haven't particularly noticed that my foraged asparagus tastes any different than my garden-grown one...supporting my claim that this person isn't a gardener. Thanks for the thoughts (on a Friday especially!).

Trout Caviar said...

Provincial rag...! Well, you will recall that famous cover, a New Yorker's view of the world, so they do (or did) have a sense of humor about it.

Thanks for that perspective--on the NYer, and the asparagus question. (I did think of your hunger for Friday reading, El, as I posted this!)

Keep 'em coming.


el said...

Ah, I think we all bear our own provincial grudges. I do well remember that cover, incidentally. But, and you will laugh at this, perhaps it's just all East Coast attitude and I bought into it at the time...I had been goaded for years to come to Vermont by my NY was so beautiful, wonderful, special, etc.; I finally go and you know what my thoughts were, once I got there? This is Wisconsin, with bigger hills. The only thing that makes it so special is that it's within 3 hours of NYC! hah!

sheryl said...

Brett, I thought of you as I read that article back when it appeared in our mailbox--well, I didn't read all of it, because it got to be a bit.... Let's just say the author carried on. I generally learn a hell of a lot from that magazine, though (thank you, Atul Gawande).

Teresa Marrone said...

I read that article a week or so ago, and my first reaction was, hey, did the author say that the guy walked past a sloe? Now THAT is something worth noting, as a forager. But maybe I misunderstood what the author was saying.

Upon reading further, my second reaction was, what? Wild asparagus just tastes like fresh, locally grown, recently picked asparagus that I can buy at the farmers market or grow in my own garden. And I don't think of its season as being particularly short.

My third reaction was a sort of, I don't know, a sadness that the place this author chose to highlight was an abandoned farm, likely the farm garden at that. Nothing wrong with foraging there; I've done it many times, and it does improve one's odds of finding edible things to pick. But that isn't foraging in the true sense of the word, is it? I mean, yes, it is foraging because it involves picking something oneself, in a non-cultivated location (at least, one which is not under CURRENT cultivation). But this isn't the same thing, at all, as rambling through the woods or along a stream and picking the plants that were put there by nature. I think the author missed the point of what foraging really is about... the uncertainty, the quest for the unfamiliar, the identification process.

Foraging seems to be an up-and-coming "sport" and I've read breathless reviews of famous restaurants that serve foraged foods, manipulated with molecular gastronomy techniques (Noma, anyone?) and I say, if this is what the new wave of foragers are looking for, heaven help us all.

Kate said...

Gosh I wish I lived in New York instead of Wisconsin. Maybe there are rooftop top gardens to forage.

Clean Trout said...

With this article I was really taken back to our childhood where we would go to a special place near our home to cut wild asparagus to cook for dinner. I don't know if it was because we needed it or because it was fun but I sure enjoyed it and it left a positive memory that keeps me looking for edible food in the wild.

Thank you for the wonderful story and for bringing back such good memories!

angie said...

Hey Brett,

I'm in WI reading your book (specifically Wine-Braised Oxtails with Shallot and Carrots, Cumin and Cocoa) and listening to To The Best of Our Knowledge on WPR and during a break one those sponsorship messages comes on and it is the Minnesota Historical Society Press and they mention your book! How about that!! :)

LOVING the book.

Happy Holidays to you and Mary.

Sylvie in Rappahannock said...

well, I reacted the same as others when I read the bit about wild asparagus being different from the garden ones and growing in the shade... thinking: was the author just dreaming this? wild asparagus are just escapees from the garden... in the US... not necessarily in Italy (or in Southern France). And the foraging was happening in Italy - as I realized when I actually read the piece (thanks for the link, Brett). Two "wild asparagus" grow there that are not garden asparagus gone wild. in French (since I am more familiar with that): Asperge sauvage (Asparagus acutifolius - thorny-leave asparagus) grows around the Mediterranean basin - they are not the same species as cultivated asparagus (A. officinalis). Then you have "aspergette" aka "asperge sauvage" or "asperge des bois". They aren't even an asparagus, but an ornithogalum (O. pyrenaicum). and yes their season is very brief - and they grow in the woods. Neither taste quite like cultivated asparagus. The author may just not have realized at all that they were harvesting different plants altogether - causing confusion for those who actually have grown and have foraged asparagus in the us (where - YES! - they taste the same, being the same....)

Trout Caviar said...

What a great discussion--but then, I wouldn't expect anything else from the sort of people I am privileged to have reading and contributing to this blog. I love the variety of perspectives expressed here, and I learned a few things.

My take on the quoted passage: Well, first, there is something undeniably compelling about the idea of foraging in the Tuscan countryside, bringing home all that gorgeous "wild" greenery to mix into a risotto, so much a dish of that place. And I do, most certainly, regard what the writer and her companion were doing as foraging (well, I'm the one who's pushing the idea that seeking out great fish markets and butcher shops represents an aspect of foraging, too!).

What I wonder about, in the case of the asparagus, is whether what they were picking was actually wild. The clue words in the passage--farmhouse, garden--led me to believe that this was an abandoned garden they were gleaning from, and that that asparagus patch, though clearly untended, was by no means wild. Teresa, Kate, and Sylvie, I see you all reached the same conclusion.

It makes me think of our apple trees out at Bide-A-Wee, which are wild(ish), in the sense of not having been tended for a long time. Yet I don't think of them as wild food like the haws, nannyberries, black cherries, plums, etc., that have no direct domestic counterpart or source. And the more we prune and tend them, the less wild they become; at some point I think I'll cease to think of harvesting that fruit as foraging, at all.

Sylvie, thanks for that great info on the truly wild "asparagus" of Europe. I did wonder if geographic differences came into play here, but I decided that it was regular cultivated asparagus they were gathering--if it were a different species entirely, I would think that would bear noting.

I concur with several comments here that our wild--or escapee--asparagus isn't different in quality from the really good organically grown stuff from garden or farmers market. Freshness is the main determining factor, I think. We have a small patch of it on a hill at Bide-A-Wee, and when I can pick a few spears, walk it down the hill and across the meadow, sliver it up and serve it raw in a light mustard garlic dressing, an hour from field to plate--well, that's the best asparagus I've ever eaten. But I wouldn't say that's because it has a "wilderness taste"; it's just supremely fresh, crisp, sweet, and flavorful.

There is a distinctive flavor to many wild edibles, mainly those that have no real domestic counterpart--nettles, fiddleheads, etc. That idea of wilderness flavor is part of the aura I mentioned, which can be quite thrilling to consider and taste, and which can also shroud the true nature of the thing in needless mystique. The fancy restaurants now celebrating wild foods, I think they partake of a bit of each. And, well, maybe some bloggers and cookbook authors do, too(!).

Trout Caviar said...

(Breaking my response in two, as I think there's a length limit on comments.)

I don't want to rag on The New Yorker (I'll leave that up to El!). I've enjoyed many articles, stories, poems--and of course, the cartoons--over many years. However, I agree with Sheryl that the author could have moved things along, and reached something more of a point. Something of the pathetic fallacy going on there, the writing imitating the aimless, rambling nature of a day afield, perhaps.

I will say I was confused by "overgrown copse"; isn't a copse, by its nature, overgrown...? Also concur with El that the author is a little unclear on the generally beneficial relationship between growing things and sun.

Finally: Angie, yes, I heard that exact same promo on TTBOOK! I wasn't alerted ahead of time that the MHS Press was buying those spots, so the first time I heard it, it took me totally by surprise. And then, of course, every subsequent time I've heard it, I'm tickled pink! Glad you're enjoying the book; the oxtails recipe really is a good one.

Thanks, everyone~ Brett

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