Eau d’Asparagus: An Ode

Deborah Haak-Frost

Sow Good Seeds

Sow Good Seeds is a column devoted to environmental issues, gardening, cooking, and anything else connected to the natural world that has so graciously hosted us on this earth. It is the author’s hope that it will encourage you to see the world around you in a different way, to make incremental changes in your daily living, and to treat our planetary home such that we honor the generations of life that will follow.

Ah, asparagus: the herald of warmer weather to come, the great divider of households, the aroma of springtime bathrooms everywhere. 

I stand firmly in the pro-asparagus camp, and only recently converted my husband, who grew up seeing the vegetable come from the microwave by way of aluminum cans. I have found that a quick application of high heat, a little oil, salt, pepper, and a splash of lemon juice at the end is well worth the minimal input of energy.

Asparagus in season is impossible to beat: grocery store versions in August or January just don’t compare. When it’s grown locally and then harvested and sold within a few hours or days, the freshness factor is off the charts. Dollars spent locally stay local, and farmers need all the support they can get, especially these days. Plus, think about the miles that a bundle of asparagus travels when it comes all the way from South America or Asia – that’s a lot of fuel, which adds up to a big carbon footprint. 

Local cat sneaks nibble during photo shoot. (Deborah Haak-Frost|Watershed Voice)

Did you know that Hart, Michigan hosts a National Asparagus Festival every summer, as Oceana County is regarded as the “Asparagus Capital of the Nation”?  Unfortunately, this year’s celebration – originally scheduled for mid-June – has been cancelled. Hopefully the Asparagus Queen, the Spear-It 5k Run/Walk, and the Taste of Asparagus Competition can carry on next year.

I can’t help but wonder what their restroom situation is like, but I’ve come across some interesting information regarding the telltale smell given off by the urine of asparagus-eaters. The phenomenon has long been documented, as it turns out: Louis Lemery, a French botanist and chemist, noted in 1702 that it produces “a powerful and disagreeable smell in the urine, as everybody knows.” (Apparently, if you didn’t know this is 1702, you were out of the loop). Marcel Proust, the famous French writer, penned in 1913 that it “transforms [his] chamber-pot into a flask of perfume.”

I’m not sure that I would liken it to perfume, as the smell comes from the metabolization of compounds that yields ammonia and sulfur products. But, research has found that while most people’s urine does produce the smell after eating asparagus, there are some people who cannot detect the smell (even from their own urine), perhaps due to a genetic variation. So, in 1702, if you didn’t have the asparagus-pee-smelling gene and you ate asparagus in oblivious bliss, you weren’t much in Louis’s eyes. 

And maybe you’re blessed to have that gene missing from your DNA now. In any case, I hope that you’re able to enjoy this season’s harvest from a nearby farm. I snatched up one of the last few pounds for the day at my local farm market and snuck a few spears straight from the hot roasting pan before dinner. A pass through the oven is my favorite way to consume asparagus — see the recipe below — but it also shines in frittatas, pasta dishes, risotto, chopped raw in salads, and even ribboned over top of pizza.

Roasted Asparagus

Preheat oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit.

Rinse about a pound of asparagus (two handfuls for me), and trim the ends, either with a knife or by snapping the ends off by hand. 

Lay the asparagus out on a rimmed baking sheet and drizzle with oil (about a tablespoon). Shake the pan or toss with tongs to cover evenly. Season with a couple shakes of salt and pepper

Check doneness by piercing the base of the asparagus with a fork: it’s ready when there’s only slight resistance (think al dente pasta. Overcooked asparagus is sad asparagus!). Thin spears take less time than thicker spears: start checking at 8-9 minutes for thinner spears; thicker spears may take 15-20 minutes. 

If you’d like, plate up the asparagus on a serving platter. Just before serving, add your toppings. I like a splash of lemon juice for the brightness; you could also sprinkle on Parmesan cheese or toasted sliced almonds for a nutty finish of umami, or drizzle syrupy balsamic vinegar to add depth and complexity.

Deborah Haak-Frost is grateful for every ray of sunshine that reaches her skin. She is the Caretaker for Community Engagement at GilChrist Retreat Center in Three Rivers. 

Any views or opinions expressed in “Sow Good Seeds” are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the Watershed Voice staff or its board of directors.