Stalked by Wild Asparagus

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Wild asparagus is good eating, whether you just boil and butter the stalks or bake them into a pie.
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Mature dead stalks mark the location where new stalks will grow in spring.
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A young shoot of wild asparagus.

Ol’ Euell Gibbons “stalked” all the wild asparagus he could eat,
and some of my best friends seem to gather the tasty
vegetable by the cord. Unfortunately, neither
Gibbons’ inspiration nor my buddies’ encouragement seemed
to help me. I searched for the elusive ‘gras spears for
many a spring, but–no matter how far I roamed or how
doggedly I scoured the ground–my gatherin’ sack
always remained empty.

Asparagus Finds Me!

Then one May morning as I was mowing the far corner
of a too-long-neglected lawn, I started to get a very
peculiar feeling. Call it a wild food lover’s
sixth sense, deja vu, or just a gnat buzzing in my
ear–whatever the unusual sensation was, it kept coming
back to me every time I went past that one bend. Well, when
I get an itch I scratch it. So on the next circuit I
stopped my grass cutter and took a look.

Right away, some dead plant stalks caught my eye. The dried
“sticks” stood out from the rest of last year’s weeds
because they were light–almost tan–in color,
and because each one consisted of a single, half-inch
“trunk” with a few scrawny branches dangling from its
sides. The three-foot-tall stems looked like pitiful
excuses for needleless, discarded Christmas trees. But,
clustered at the base of these “Yuletide rejects” were
bunches of firm, young asparagus shoots! At last I’d found
the evasive little vegetables … and right in my own back
yard too!

Know Your Quarry

Now, I’ve told you about my plant-finding experience to
show that [1] there may be lots of asparagus growing right
under your nose, and [2] you can find your own supply of
tasty spears if you know what to look for! Or, rather,
if you learn how not to search for these foraged

Don’t, for example, hunt–with your eyes
glued to the ground–for the “l’il sprouts” themselves:
Those purplish-green babies may be dwarfed by other plant
growth or hiding under old leaves. Instead, learn to
recognize the tall, dried stalks (which are all that
remains of last year’s mature plants). You’ll find plenty
of 6- to 10-inch goodies nestled under these easily
observed “signal flags.”

To be successful, you’ll have to know exactly what
those stalks look like. And although the photos and
descriptions in this article can help, the best way
to sharpen your asparagus-spotters is to actually see some
plants “in the flesh.” So if you know a friendly forager,
get him or her to take you out for a lookin’ lesson.

On the other hand, maybe a neighbor of yours has grown a
patch of ‘gras in his or her vegetable garden for the past
few seasons. If so, last year’s shriveled-up asparagus
leftovers are probably still standing around the plot. Go
sit yourself down in front of those dead stalks for a few
minutes and memorize their features. Don’t fret
that you may be examining some tame variety that won’t look
at all like the “woolly” breed you’re out to capture
because wild and cultivated asparagus are one and the same
plant (Asparagus officinalis, literally “shoot
used as medicine”). Seed-spreading birds once helped some
garden specimens “escape from civilization,” and now the
hardy perennial ranges all over the country.

“Planting” Ahead

If–after all your stalk studies–you still come
up empty-plattered this spring, the asparagus plants you
missed will grow past the shoot-eating stage and mature
into tall stalks. But don’t stop looking! Any “grown-ups”
you find in July will give you succulent sprouts when
you come back to the “marked” spot the following spring.

The summer plants have the same tapering-toward-the-top,
feathery branch design as dead spring stems do, but still
growing stalks are green in color, and their sparse sprigs
are flecked with tiny hairlike leaves (the wispy fronds are
often used for decoration in table bouquets). Pollinating
plants also develop small, drooping, greenish-white flowers
that each yield–by fall–a single, bright red
berry (which harbors the seeds that the birds spread).

Of course, chances are–with the kind of “training”
that I’ve described–you’ll find yourself up to your
ankles in good eatin’ this spring. Because, once
you’ve learned to identify asparagus plants, you’ll be
amazed at how easy the young shoots are to find! Field
borders, the sides of old railroad tracks, or any open
areas with good soil and sun are likely to contain thriving
“plots” that you can return to again and again (just pick
all the young spears, and their persistent roots will send
up new ones)!

In fact, nowadays I just position my two children by the
car’s rear windows, drive down little traveled country
lanes, and let the young’uns shout out the roadside patches
as we roll along. No sir, I no longer worry about having to
“stalk” asparagus; these plants are so
plentiful that it seems like they’re stalking me!

Sweet Eats With Asparagus Treats

When you’ve finally herded up a pail of fresh little
asparagus shoots (you can help tenderize any tough, woody,
older stalks by peeling them), it’s time to pull on an
apron and set in to cooking, Of course, the easiest way to
fix your vegetables is to just “boil up and butter” (or
better yet, steam to the right consistency) a plateful, but
the scrumptious spikes will easily lend themselves to all
sorts of other good-eating treatments, too!

If you’d like to serve a juicy asparagus hors d’oeuvre, for
instance, simply wrap each cooked spear with a piece of
buttered sandwich bread and hold the appetizers together
with toothpicks.

Or, how about a dish of asparagus “popcorn”? To start this
eye-opener, slice your raw stalks on the extreme bias,
about a quarter-inch thick. Then heat 1 tablespoon of olive
oil and a bit of ginger (like asparagus, ginger can be
found “free for the foraging”) in a skillet. Throw in 3
cups of the lean vegetable pieces, along with a couple
dashes of salt and pepper. Turn the heat up to “high,” put a
lid on the pan, and start shaking! In about four
minutes, this old popcorn-cooking technique will give
you and yours some mighty crisp eating!

The “free-food” gourmet’s delight, however, just about has
to be Billy Joe’s Asparagus Pie (reprinted here with
the permission of Workman Publishing Company from Billy Joe Tatum’s Wild Foods Cookbook
& Field Guide,
copyright © 1976 by Billy Joe
Tatum). To make this delicacy, you’ll first have to
bake–and set aside–your own favorite pie shell
recipe. Then–to make a white sauce–melt 3
tablespoons of butter, blend in 3 tablespoons of flour, and
add 1 cup of hot milk (stir the mixture continuously for 5
to 10 minutes until it thickens). When this “gravy” is
ready, mix in a couple of chicken-or vegetable- bouillon
cubes (these are optional), 1 tablespoon of minced chives,
and salt and pepper to taste.

Next, add 4 cups of cooked, 1-inch asparagus pieces, and 4
chopped, hardboiled eggs. Pour this finished filling into
your baked pie shell and sprinkle the top with 1/2 cup of
shredded cheddar cheese. Finally, slide this beautiful
masterwork into a 400°F oven for 10 minutes (or until
the cheese begins to brown), and then (what are you waiting
for?) dig in!

Got the Foragin’ Fever?

Want to learn more about finding and cooking wild foods?
Here are some good books on the subject:

Stalking the Wild Asparagus by Euell Gibbons
(David McKay, 1970). Paperback. $3.95.

Billy Joe
Tatum’s Wild Foods Cookbook & Field Guide
by Helen Witty (Workman, 1976). Large paperback. $4.95.

Feasting Free on Wild Edibles by, Bradford Angier
(Stackpole, 1972). Paperback. $5.95.  

American Indian
Food and Lore
by Carolyn Niethammer (Collier, 1974).
Large paperback. $4.95.  

Edible Wild Plants by
Oliver Perry’ Medsger (Collier, 1972). Paperback. $3.95.