As I write, the asparagus season is beginning. I think this is a big deal. A friend of mine from the continent once said to me, “Ah yes, asparagus. That vegetable you British are so proud of.” It wasn’t worth arguing about at the time because I didn’t feel like an argument then, but now I do, and if I do it here she can’t get back at me.
It is a common trope among the right that people on the left loathe their own country. This is incorrect. We love it but there is very little about it that is lovable right now. It’s all very well to say the Beatles are great but I’m afraid they’re no longer recording. The BBC and the NHS stagger along, just, for the time being. British progressivism is great when it isn’t being anti-Semitic or just generally tiresome. The national character could maybe do with some improvement but on the whole it is kind and humorous (you know, the exact opposite of Nigel Farage). It was our ability – you could almost call it a pressing need – to make a joke about absolutely everything that was, if I recall correctly, one of the main reasons that Bill Bryson decided to make his home here. I’m sure I could think of more things I love about this country but I haven’t got all day and the magazine needs its copy.
But every spring, the soil of this poor, benighted, miserable and now-isolated place produces a miracle: the asparagus spear. It is one of the very few foodstuffs where I actually look for a Union Flag on the wrapper. (I remember the first time I saw a pot of British crème fraîche and I thought to myself: does anyone else see the problem here?) The stuff that has been flown halfway round the world simply doesn’t cut it. Put a plate of sparrow grass from Peru next to one from Lincolnshire and I’d be able to tell you which was which just by smelling them. Are you even allowed to call asparagus from Peru “sparrow grass”? I don’t think so.
It is, of course, the sexiest of vegetables, and like all things sexy, it trembles on the edge of exploitation. In Evelyn Waugh’s Put Out More Flags, we know Basil Seal is a wrong ’un before we get to his incestuous relationship with his sister because of these lines: “He rejoiced, always, in the spectacle of women at a disadvantage: thus he would watch, in the asparagus season, a dribble of melted butter on a woman’s chin, marring her beauty and making her ridiculous, while she would still talk and smile and turn her head, not knowing how she appeared to him.” That’s awful, but you can see where he’s coming from. The spectacle is almost pornographic, and I’m not sure about that “almost”.
Asparagus is the only hot food in this country in which etiquette doesn’t just allow but actually demands that you pick it up with your fingers, militating direct sensuous contact. A little butter down the chin is actually an adornment. Cf the liquor from a freshly opened oyster, another aphrodisiac food that you have to eat with your fingers. The asparagus season dovetails nicely with the end of the oyster season (and think of the very way it embeds itself into the national psyche by virtue of it actually having a season, like the flat racing season, or Glyndebourne, or grouse). There’s no way round it: asparagus is posh, and as the makers of Downton Abbey, and indeed Evelyn Waugh before them, know, posh is sexy. Asparagus also makes your pee smell funny, as celebrated by Derek and Clive in one of their crueller songs. It becomes intimately involved with the body in a way nothing else does. (OK, beetroot too, but beetroot is yuck. Rhubarb also has its season, and is something this country does better than anyone else, but rhubarb is also yuck. Don’t write in.)
I suppose you can see where I’m going with this. It is not a vegetable to be eaten on one’s own. It is to be eaten à deux, either with someone you are in the habit of sleeping with or someone you hope to be sleeping with very soon. To eat it alone, or to admit to eating it alone, is, I sometimes think, more shameful than to admit to masturbation. All my happiest memories of the asparagus season have involved eating it with women I have loved. And it doesn’t even have to be picked up by the fingers. I once made, for my beloved H—, a dish of asparagus tips in scrambled eggs (the eggs stirred over the lowest possible heat for half an hour, with a few twists of black pepper and – a little restaurant secret here – a few shavings of Parmesan). After her first mouthful she said “Marry me”, and I should have.
Last year, I had to sit out the second half of the season on my own. That was bad enough. This year, from now until the third week of June or so I have to ask myself, when I hover over the vegetable section at Waitrose and catch the red, white and blue flash on the wrapper: am I really going to buy this and eat it alone? I honestly don’t think I could face it. No one there to see a little rivulet of butter running down the chin, to be wiped off with a napkin, or a caress, or a kiss.
This article appears in the 04 May 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Dictating the Future