I Visited the Cult of White Asparagus
Germans take their asparagus <i>very</i> seriously: They have these “Spargelfests” (a.k.a. asparagus festivals) almost every weekend in May, where they elect asparagus queens and eat a ton of the foul-pee-inducing veggies.
Asparagus season is manic in Germany. Every May, there are these things called "Spargelfests" (a.k.a. asparagus festivals) almost every weekend. The parties have bad live cover bands, weird tai chi performances on park grass and wine tastings in glasses (not plastic). Throughout the all-round merriment, one thing is for certain: Zee Germans take their asparagus very seriously.
So seriously that many cities elect asparagus queens. Take the Asparagus Club in the small town of Beelitz, who nominated a female soldier. Stephanie Bathe, the 24-year-old Asparagus Queen of Beelitz, served with the Federal Armed Forces for five years. The self-proclaimed country girl was one of two who applied for the crown, but the Asparagus Association said in a statement that they chose Bathe for her "strong personality, intelligence and self-confidence." Oh yeah, and her love of asparagus (but maybe her military touch, too).
Beelitz has had 18 Asparagus Queens since 1997, all of which have princess dresses, asparagus crowns and a good old rural glow about them. No one has plastic surgery. I'd be completely surprised if they have MAC foundation in the farms. In fact, Bathe's dress looks like something out of grandma's living room—possibly the curtains—but she still looks fabulous. Since last month, the newly-crowned asparagus queen kicked off the season by "digging the white gold from the ground." To the Germans, this is an honor. The biggest white asparagus growing areas in Germany are south of Berlin in the area of Brandenburg and in the southwest of the country Schwetzingen, better known as "the capital of asparagus in the world."
While it is not really a religious thing, Germans eat the white rods religiously until asparagus season wraps up on St. John the Baptist's feast day on June 24. The long-held tradition dates back 2,000 years ago, when green asparagus arrived from Asia and was immediately considered a delicacy; it later found a resurgence in the 16th century from the nobility of France. By the mid-19th century, asparagus season was cult-like in Germany,with asparagus peeling contests, how-big-is-your-asparagus competitions, and cooking courses.
I recently attended Berlin's asparagus festival in Rudolph Wilde Park, he gayborhood of Schöneberg – famous for being the birthplace of Marlene Dietrich and Helmut Newton, and the same spot where David Bowie and Iggy Pop lived in the 70s. Since 2003, Berlin's Spargelfest has been luring in tourists, expats, local gays, wandering strangers, and local neighbors. I sat down over a plate of white rods with the co-organizer, Martina Sieg-Heuke, who only speaks German and Spanish, who said people come to get asparagus-themed stuff, like asparagus crepes, asparagus marmalade and asparagus soup (I only found the latter). Old people get wasted on classy wines while listening to swing bands and chowing down on asparagus smothered in Hollandaise sauce. It wasn't rowdy at all, but if you were carrying a camera, you got some pretty strange looks and a bit of heckling from overprotective farmers.
The first thing I noticed upon entering was the Asparagus Kitchen, a pop-up restaurant featuring the classic German plate—five pieces of white asparagus drenched in Hollandaise sauce and peeled white potatoes (sliced Black Forest ham was optional). Damn, was it good. There was something so fresh about it, but you have to plug your nose when you pee the next day; asparagus cleans your insides and makes your pee reek. Dozens of Germans sat around silently eating as ABBA covers blared from the stage, while the Berlin Swinging Bears square danced to "Miss American Pie." One mom-aged dancer was wearing an über- spectacular wolf dress. Roughly 80 vendors were selling asparagus soup and homemade asparagus pesto, like Frank Freiberg from Brandenburg, who was selling asparagus vinegar (who knew?). The more creative you can get with the asparagus, the better.
The main draw, of course, was the raw bunches of white asparagus for $3 a bunch from local farms like Buschmann & Winklemann.
Aside from all the asparagus-themed stuff, there were a few political parties who set up stalls with plates of apple crumble, 'American' ice cream (soft ice cream made from a machine) and the Kung Fu Show Team doing a performance in the park, which is exactly what you think it is. One senior sensei looked incredible in white silk, like the human version of Falcor from the Neverending Story.
As the day drew on, people were getting increasingly wasted. I watched one guy whip out an automatic German asparagus peeling machine, which drew a crowd of enamored bystanders.
One thing excites the Germans for sure: the awakening of a new season that's arrived. Unlike in America where you can get all fruits and veggies year round, Europe is mostly seasonal. But that makes them savor their food all the more. Just as Mireille Guiliano, who wrote French Women Don't Get Fat, said, the food tastes best during their seasons (instead of tasteless winter strawberries, for example). So if you're on this side of the pond, you have to enjoy asparagus fever while it lasts. You won't really find this shit in the frozen food aisles.
Uh, this is kind of obscure but the Asparagus Festival of Beelitz (think: outskirts of Berlin) kicks off in Beelitz, Germany on May 30-June 1.
Follow @nadjasayej on Twitter but only if you have a really good asparagus joke.
- tai chi
- white asparagus
- hollandaise sauce