“What do you mean it grows in the ditches?” G asked with skepticism.
“It grows in the ditches – it’s like a weed you can eat.” I responded.
Asparagus was the subject – and growing up in rural Iowa – or at least my area of rural Iowa, we never bought asparagus – we harvested it.
From the ditches.
G looked at my mom to see if I was telling the truth or just pulling his leg. He loved asparagus, and this idea that it grows wild for the picking was something that both excited him and intrigued him as though there was a catch. I had to be lying. But my mom nodded and smiled and assured him that it did indeed grow in the ditches.
“Okay,” my dad yelled from the living room, “we’re taking him asparagus hunting!”
G was excited but still a bit skeptical. Was this like snipe hunting, he later asked as we were in the car. I assured him we would take him snipe hunting later but only within sight of the house. If you’re going to take someone snipe hunting, you have to be able to watch them make a fool of themselves as they try to legitimately capture this mythical creature. I mean, that’s where the fun is.
My dad led us to his minivan that had actually been a van used by a repairman or something as it did not have back seats. He had put in bean bag chairs for the passengers he was not legally supposed to have in the van. He wanted us to go in that van because we could drive with the sliding door open. We piled in and off we went – to find his favorite gravel road outside of town.
Asparagus hunting is simple. You drive slowly down the gravel roads looking for the asparagus that usually grows in the ditches near the fence line. The trick is seeing it through the tall grass which makes lots of things – mainly lots of water. So as you go into the ditch, you were wondering how much of a swim you’d get to take unexpectedly. There were also snakes – my dad’s favorite. That man could run fast if a snake was involved.
We reached the place my dad wanted to take us. We slid open the side door and started looking for the asparagus.
“There’s some!” my mom exclaimed as she pointed out her window as what, to the untrained eye looked like nothing.
“Where?” G asked.
“There – don’t you see it?”
The rest of us saw it as my dad stopped the car, my mom jumped out to pick the asparagus she found. She came back presenting it proudly as though she had just found a gold nugget. G was amazed because, well, he was skeptical still.
And this is how the rest of the hunting continued. One of us would spot one, we would run out to grab it. We would hand it to G who was beginning to think we were using black magic to spot it because there was no way he could see how we could see them sticking up in the grass.
“Honey, look for the big bushy ones that have gone to seed,” I pointed, “like that one. That’s usually a good way to start being able to spot asparagus.”
Yeah, the advice didn’t really work either.
Then, when he was about ready to throw himself from the moving van in frustration, we hear “THERE’S ONE!!” I think he lept from the van even before my dad brought it to a safe stop. He ran into the ditch, dug through the grass, then held up an asparagus spear…..
….about 3 inches long.
“I got one!!” He waved it in the air proudly. “I got one!!”
He ran back into the van waving it around. We all congratulated him while stifling our giggles. It was like he had just caught a game winning pass or something – he held it that proudly.
After that, we went home – our pile of asparagus in between us.
“So when we get home, we’re going to eat it, right?” G was looking forward to consuming the bounty.
“Oh, we have elderly neighbors we give most of it to. No one but Mom and I eat it, so we keep very little of it,” I explained.
He was shocked that we had this huge pile of asparagus, and we were going to give it away.
“It’s tradition. I hate asparagus, but it was a good way to get a date out on a country road with an explanation if caught,” my dad volunteered, “the key was to get enough for the elderly neighbors that people thought you were actually out there to asparagus hunt.”
And in the moment, G learned the real truth. That asparagus hunting in our family started because my dad was taking his girlfriend ( my mom) out for a ride in the country. Sure, as I was young, we continued to do it. But mainly because my parents had established that they were the ones to provide for the elderly.
Also, growing up, we didn’t have a lot of money to do other things like go to movies or what not, so it was a good way to blow an evening. We would ride around with the windows down, listening and singing along to the music, as we would run into and out of the ditches collecting the bounty. No one ever would have thought of selling it – I mean, it’s a ditch weed, in essence. We just did it to pass the time. And get the hell out of a humid and hot house when the weather sucked.
Living on the west coast now, it always makes me shake my head a little bit as I have to buy the asparagus in the stores. Once when I worked with a woman who was also a master gardener, I commented I wouldn’t know how to grow asparagus. I mean, I don’t have a ditch in the backyard with a barbed wire fence. Is there another way it’s grown?
I often think these are the weird little Iowan things my kids won’t ever experience.
Until they shout from the back of the car that the blackberry brambles over there look full of ripe berries. And we pull off the road, next to an abandoned field overrun by blackberry vines, dig around the car in hopes of finding the right containers, and go off to pick blackberries for cobbler.
In that moment, I feel like my dad.
I hate blackberries. But I’ll get scraped up and all just so others can have them.