Today, my calendar gave me a quick look at spring. March 20th, it flashed. I thought of the old poster in my parents’ basement, the one with the quote that says “Expose Yourself to Art.” It’s a picture of a guy in a trench coat from the back. He’s got the coat splayed open, showing what must be his naked body to an equally threadless statue.
Yes, spring flashed me, and what did I do? I bought asparagus. How risque. (I love living in Washington. California doesn’t seem that far away, when you’re trying to justify not eating locally.)
I have to say, I didn’t really want an asparagus gratin, or anything of the sort – nothing that allowed the spears to stick together, or prevent them from being pickupable, because that would strip the poor things of their best attribute, which is their portability.
My mother taught me to eat asparagus.
I know, that sounds silly. What is there to know?
There’s body position, for one. She rarely eats it sitting. She’s a springy sort of person, always shooting up to do something, which makes it fitting that she’d love asparagus. (If you’ve never seen it grow, find some over the next couple months. It rockets right out of the ground, from peek-a-boo tip to full-grown edible in a matter of days. They must measure growth by the hour. Quelle energie. Like Mom.)
Growing up, she’d steam it and serve it plain, which is the best way to get a mouthful of that pure green, grassy flavor. She’d set the platter on the table, munching on a spear as she maneuvered around her chair. Once seated, she’d take another one, then bounce back up to get whatever was still on the stove, or just coming out of the oven. (My mother doesn’t put a meal on the table all at once, she rains dinner down slowly, one dish at a time. Just when you think you’re happy and full, a drop of something else entirely, something wonderful, shows up on the table. This is a perfect service style if you eat compartmentally, and perhaps, now that I think about it, the best explanation for why I eat that way.)
So this, you see, is how I learned to eat asparagus – forkless, one spear at a time, floating between seated and standing.
But it’s not just about timing, or utensils – there’s actually an eating technique, too. No matter the length or diameter of a spear, asparagus must be consumed in no more than three bites, taken, obviously, in quick succession. So instead of bite, chew, bite, chew, like my father does, so thoughtfully, my mother performs more of a percussive ritual, standing there behind her chair, more of a bite, bite, bite at Mach three, followed sometimes by a gulp, but rarely a chew. Or sometimes just bite, bite. You could dance to it: bite, bite, bite . . .(pause, pick up another) . . .bite, bite, bite. If there were contests, she’d win.
See, she doesn’t have to chew asparagus like normal people, because she’s a spearsucker. She brings the asparagus toward her mouth, and it disappears into her mouth. (God, I wish I had a video.) I’m not sure if there’s some sort of magnetism going on, or if she speaks to asparagus, or what, but I do know it’s a skill that’s part genetic and part learned, like parseltongue. I’m positive she learned it from her own mother.
My brother and I have almost perfected it, and I trust my sister, at 17, is on her way to becoming quite the crack spearsucker herself. (I haven’t eaten asparagus with her in a while. Maybe we’ll give it a test next week, when we see everyone.)
Anyway, because of all this, I would be lying if I said I wanted my first asparagus dish of the almost-season to come with any sort of clingy topping. I go for dressings, and vinaigrettes, and yes, for goodness’ sake, a poached egg would be lovely, but I’ll eschew the asparagus recipe that bundles them together in any way that might disturb The Force. If I can’t pick it up, forget it.
Sometimes what’s great about a food isn’t only how it tastes, but also how you eat it. Imagine eating a cookie with a knife and fork.
Separately, I’d been craving a crunchy topping – the kind of panko-based mixture you’d pat into a slab of salmon or rack of lamb, then pick off the meat and the pan in fingerfuls, once it was nice and browned, ignoring the meat itself entirely. (My friend Dani always puts any of the crusty stuff that falls off a roast into a separate bowl, and serves it on its own, which I think is genius. There’s nothing like spooning some crunch onto an empty plate and using your thumb like a lint roller to pick it up. Just don’t eat your fingers.)
So I did both – I roasted asparagus, clean and simple. Only, I happened to sneak some topping in there with it. If you’re looking for an asparagus recipe that clings and coddles, supporting your spears like an overzealous parent, move on. But if you want to eat each spear by hand, digging them out from underneath the breadcrumbs – each barely touched by the breath of a lemon, and perhaps accoutered with a crisp crumb or two – and wash them down with a bowl of lemony munchies you can also eat with your fingers, well, then, this is your recipe. My mother will love it.
Anyway. She gave us quite a scare last night, my mom did. Just blanked right out in the middle of a yoga class, and lost her short term memory. Poof. No pain, no fainting, nothing else weird – just forgot the last year and a half of her life. My family rescued her, everyone except me, and they took her to the ER, where she recovered completely in a matter of hours. They just waited, and eventually she remembered it was Thursday, and knew what she’d had for lunch, and everything was normal again, simple as that. It’s called Transient Global Amnesia, and it rarely happens to a person more than once.
But while it was happening, it wasn’t that simple, and it scared me.
Last week, I asked my mother for advice on how to comfort a friend who’d lost a parent, based on her experience losing her own father in the span of a few short, sad weeks.
“I think when people lose their parents, they always wish they’d told them certain things,” she said. “With mine, for example, I wish I’d told them they’d done a good job. You know, raising me.”
I made a mental note to return to that later in our conversation, and we kept talking about my grandfather, and my friend. But later that night, when I was climbing into bed, I realized I’d forgotten to tell her what a good job she’s done, with Dad. You know, raising us.
Last night, when there were two messages on my phone from my brother, and a text that said “call me a.s.a.p,” I thought about that conversation again, even before I knew what had happened. As the story unfurled, when she still couldn’t remember meeting the doctor each time he reentered the room, I thought about all the things she’s taught us, and is still teaching us. Not just how to eat asparagus, but how to be good humans.
Thank goodness, I say. Thank goodness the things that remind us what we need to say aren’t always life-threatening.
Mom, Dad: I’ll see you next week in New Orleans. I have something to tell you.
Until then, buy some asparagus. It’s spearsucking season.
Roasted Asparagus with Lemon Breadcrumbs (PDF)
If you’re a purist, roast the asparagus and the breadcrumbs side by side in a bigger pan – separated, so they don’t touch – and serve them as Roasted Asparagus and Lemon Breadcrumbs.
TIME: 5 minutes active time
MAKES: 4 servings
1 large bunch asparagus, trimmed
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon olive oil
Zest and juice of 1 small lemon
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1/2 cup panko (Japanese breadcrumbs)
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.
Place the asparagus in a baking dish, and toss with one teaspoon of the oil.
Place the remaining tablespoon of oil in a small bowl. Stir in the lemon zest and juice, and season with salt and pepper. Stir in the breadcrumbs, mixing until they stick together when you press them into a clump in your hand.
Scatter the breadcrumbs over the asparagus, and roast 15 to 20 minutes on the top shelf, until the asparagus are cooked.