Helen Chappell - June 2010


Wild Asparagus
Helen Chappell


In the spring, one of the best dishes is shad roe, accompanied by asparagus. It’s happy that both of these foods are in season at the same time around here, so you can eat as locally as possible. The salty pop of shad roe is counterbalanced by the crisp greenness of the quickly steamed, quickly served handfuls of asparagus. They taste of spring.
Still, even the asparagus from the farmer’s market, delectable as it is, can’t hold a candle to the wild asparagus we used to collect when I was a kid. Perhaps because we had to stalk and gather it ourselves as it grew by the roadsides and fields, it just tasted better.
My friend Audrey’s father Leo introduced me to the hunt for those long green spears. If I’d relied on my own parents, I never would have had the experience of piling into Leo’s Ford with a half dozen other kids, driving slowly along the two-lane blacktops, the country roads, scanning the roadsides for those tall, elusive spears. The trick, of course, is to find them before they sprout into ferns, a matter of timing that only a master like Leo could intuit.
One day in April, he’d call his daughters and the neighborhood kids, and we’d set off. Gas was thirty-five cents a gallon, roadsides were ungroomed and parents thought nothing of letting their kids roll around the country with a friend’s father. That seems like another world now, but the quality of a spring twilight and the slight chill of a spring day always bring it back to me. It was a far more innocent time.
Does anyone even look for wild asparagus anymore, or has it all been trimmed away by giant mowers before it even has a chance to sprout? Driving along now, I never see it. Maybe I’ve lost the knack, or maybe it’s just been landscaped into extinction.
Believe me, the spears are not easy to spot, camouflaged as they are by high grass and weeds. You really have to have a sharp eye and a sharper focus to be able to pick out a single spear from the surrounding foliage.
The best one of us was Ruby, also the youngest. That six-year-old could spot a spear from twenty feet away. “Get it, Ruby!” Leo would call as she scrambled out of the back seat of the car, climbing a high bank and claiming her prize.
I thought my friend Audrey’s family was very cool. There were four daughters, including a set of twins, and they were rather like small-town Mitford sisters. Smart, funny, pretty and talented, they achieved effortlessly in school, and I found them and their parents, the amazing Leo and the gentle Helen, fascinating because they were so different from my family.
I still believe that Helen and Leo had a great hand in raising me in that way adults who are fortunate enough not to be your parents can do. They were Quakers, like many of the families I grew up with, and possessed of a social conscience long before it was fashionable. If I know how to behave in Meeting, it’s because I used to go there on Sundays when I spent the weekend. It was very different from our stiff and formal church with its sermons and rituals.
And their household was very different from ours, too. Helen and Leo were younger than my parents, and had been children in the Great Depression. Like good Quakers, they were frugal, but Leo’s Italian ancestry gave him a do-it-yourself mindset I respected and found totally fascinating. Still do. Leo was well ahead of the curve on eating local and culinary experimentation.
First, there was this enormous garden where he raised not just the usual vegetables and fruits, but also buckwheat and other experimental plantings that yielded all sorts of exotic tastes I never would have experienced until much later in my life. He also played classical music in his garage, so the strains of Mozart and Schubert washed over his little plantation, and everything he planted thrived.
He also hit the street market in Philadelphia on Saturdays, buying squid and octopus, speaking Italian to the vendors, haggling over and selecting with an expert eye. All those sights and sounds and tastes were exotic to a small-town kid. I loved it. After the market, he’d take us for Chinese food, another thing you didn’t get living in a high place on the road.
Leo’s inventiveness and experimentation knew no limits. He made his own ketchup. He made his own pasta. He raised chickens and knew how to slaughter and butcher a hog. He made bread. He made his own soap. He made his own wine, like any good Italian man of those days. But he also built a still and tried his hand at making his own whiskey, careful to distill less than the 100 gallons a year the law allowed. He did all these things and more with such a joyful exuberance that one listened, watched and learned.
Like most teenagers, his daughters all thought this stuff was impossibly gauche and silly. Audrey liked to come to my house because my mother served Weaver’s Fried Chicken, frozen slabs of pre-fried meat that you heated in the oven. While I thought Leo and Helen’s octopus salad and fried okra were exotic delights, Audrey swooned over the soft, mushy supermarket bread we had at my house.
After a long and successful career at Luken’s Steel, Leo retired to his garden and his grandchildren, and continues to enjoy life, as does his wife, Helen. From time to time, I go to see them, and enjoy finding out what they’re up to now. I want to be as alive and interested and active as they are when I’m their age, if I live that long.
Leo no longer has a crowd of kids to stalk the wild asparagus. He grows it in his garden now, and has shown his grandchildren how to pick it just at the right moment.
But I’ll never forget those spring evenings, so long ago, when long shadows stretched across the roads and the cry of “Go get it, Ruby” echoed through the air.