Saturday, October 16, 2004


Last night, looking around for a vegetable side dish for dinner, I came across two seemingly incongruent things: some thin, tender asparagus in the refrigerator, and a heavy, golden butternut squash sitting on the sideboard.

It is fall, of course, so it is hardly surprising that we have a few winter squash sitting on the sideboard. But on Tuesday, when S and I were at the grocery store preparing for H's coming-home dinner, he pointed out a big sale display of asparagus, for less than two dollars a pound. And it was not only cheap, it was also the pencil-thin, perfect asparagus that is usually the first really fresh vegetable in spring. And right next to the asparagus display, artichokes! For 99 cents each!

Then I remembered that this particular grocery store had really good-quality plums, nectarines and other summer fruit over the holidays last year, imported from Chile, and concluded that the asparagus must come from south of the equator, where it is of course spring now. And I remembered reading an article some time ago about how farmers in Peru are growing asparagus as an export crop — if I remember correctly, being encouraged to do so as an alternative to, um, cocaine production — and in the process undercutting the asparagus industry in Washington State.

Growing cash crops for export is always a bit of a dicey business for developing nations — brings in cash, but takes land out of local food production. Peasants starving for lack of food as they work on the coffee plantations, and so forth. Hell, not just developing nations — there was an article in our local newspaper a couple of months ago about how the farm workers who pick our fruits and vegetables here in the U.S. can't afford fresh fruits and vegetables for their own families, and thus suffer from all kinds of health problems. At least asparagus is edible; if the asparagus-export market ever collapses, Peruvian farmers won't be starving as the coffee beans rot on the bushes.

H, whose food-service career was far more dashing than mine, once worked in a German restaurant owned by a woman named IG. IG would not eat asparagus. She was a descendent of the German nobility, from a junker family in the eastern part of the country. At the end of WWII, when IG was a child, her family fled as common refugees from the advancing Soviet army, which was not known to be kind to nobles and Nazi sympathizers. For some period they had nothing to eat but asparagus.

But all the weight of globalization and history aside, it is sometimes nice to be able to have a dinner accompanied by both perfect, light steamed asparagus and thick, rich, hearty roasted squash.

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