My father taught me to eat fancy food. His first real taste of anything other than basic farm fare came after he was drafted in late 1944 and got to spend a few weeks in New York the following January before he was shipped to Europe as an infantryman during the final, brutal months of the World War II. That was the last time he tasted decent food again for a long time, although he claims that the memories of what he ate in NYC sustained him through the next four months of nothing but K-rations, cold weather and combat.
He was wounded in late April, three days before his birthday, when the ruined building he was sheltering in while trying to rustle up some Spam and powdered eggs was hit by mortar fire. The first thing he thought when he woke up in the road outside with a medic leaning over him was, “What the hell happened to my breakfast?” Most of the stories in my family, even the war stories, begin and end with food.
Years later, safely home with a young wife and four small children arriving at the rate of about one a year, he resolved to introduce us to the delicacies that he had waited too long to enjoy. One of my most vivid childhood memories is of him spearing something with a fork, dipping it in melted butter, holding it out and saying, “taste this.” This might have been in Missoula or maybe Seattle; I can’t remember which because the tasty tidbit on the fork was Dungeness crab and its astonishing flavor obliterated everything else about that moment except itself. I had finally discovered a dish I liked better than Sugar Pops covered in half-and-half. Since then, over a lifetime dedicated to recapturing that moment, I have discovered many more.
My mother taught me to eat weeds. She was born in the first year of the Great Depression—although her family would have been poor without the help of the stock market crash—in a small house with a dirt floor in Vida, a Montana town as miniscule and undistinguished as its name. Wikipedia describes it as “an unincorporated village in northern McCone County…approximately 23 miles south of Wolf Point.”
Ah yes, Wolf Point. I don’t know where that is either.
When her parents and four siblings moved to the almost-but-not-quite-as-tiny town of Paradise (pop. 184), about 70 miles northeast of Missoula, it was a step up the social ladder. Their house was still small and still sat smack on the ground without a foundation underneath it, but a least it had a wooden floor. It also had several things that, as a kid, I wished we had in the places where my parents, three siblings and I lived in more dignified but far less interesting circumstances.
Things like a chicken coop, a root cellar, an old refrigerator repurposed as a fish smoker, a hutch full of rabbits, a dangerously decaying barn, and an outdoor privy that seated two. I was eight years old when my grandparents finally installed an indoor bathroom. My little sister and I continued to use the outdoor facility for years after that, because we enjoyed sitting there in relative privacy, chatting companionably and listening to the chickens scratching at the dirt. It was also a reliable way to irritate our mother.
She moved to Missoula when she married my father, so we never lived in Paradise full time (and really, who does) but we visited there year-round, especially in the summer months. My other grandmother lived in Livingston—an actual town—in a house with basement and a second floor and an indoor bathroom and no chickens or rabbits, which made it a far less interesting place to us, at least when we were young. Our mother preferred civilization; we preferred Paradise. But every year in late May, she would take us out just before dinner in search of
the fierce and terrible wild asparagus.
I have heard that wild asparagus can be found in secret, inaccessible and verdant glens, deep in the primeval wilderness. I wouldn’t know about that. Because in Paradise it grows like a weed in scrappy, woebegone and accessible places like roadside ditches, abandoned fields, untended front yards and along the railroad tracks. My grandfather discouraged us from cutting asparagus near the railroad tracks because he said it tasted like creosote. I’m not sure how he could tell because he spent most of his life working in the nearby plant where 8-foot lengths of Montana timber were treated with creosote and turned into railroad ties. He always smelled like creosote. I imagine everything he ate tasted like creosote.
Our asparagus-hunting implement was a bone-handled hunting knife that I was never allowed to handle. My mother kept it confined to its handsome leather-stamped sheath, secured by a strap with a pearlized snap until we needed it to cut the stalks. Although I promised to be careful, she wouldn’t even allow me to carry it, much less cut anything with it. That was my one-year-older brother’s job. By the time I was old enough to be allowed to carry it on my own, I had lost interest in stalking wild asparagus, so I don’t know what happened to it or where it is now. I wish I did.
My job, in my opinion quite beneath my dignity, was to carry the cloth bag that held our roadside harvest as we rambled around the ten blocks of our little town and sometimes as far as the schoolhouse up on the hill or a half-mile down what passed for a highway. My one-year-younger sister’s job, as she lagged behind us dragging a stick through the dirt, was to not get lost. She was never very good at it. When you are busy scanning the junky front porches and raggedy pastures for stray dogs or underfed horses that might need immediate adoption, it’s almost impossible to keep from wandering off into the buckbrush and disappearing from everyone’s sight. It was too small a town to actually get lost in, but if you were out of my mother’s sight for whatever amount of time it took her to discover that, you were officially deemed lost. And whenever Cheryl became “lost” it was somehow my fault. When you are the middle child, the injustice comes hurtling at you from both directions.
As soon as we got back to the house, my grandfather would say, “You kids have fun out there cutting those weeds?” To tell the truth, we much preferred the yearly excursion with him up the mountain with the Tote Gote loaded into the back of the pickup truck to collect manure from the sheep pasture for his garden. But my mother loved hunting asparagus so we always claimed we did.
One evening, when I was maybe nine years old, we were in Spokane having dinner at another family’s house and one of their children pushed his plate of asparagus away and declared to his mother, “I hate vegetables.” Appalled by his ignorance, I shot him a look of withering scorn and said, “Asparagus is not a vegetable. It’s a weed.”
Sooner or later, every rational person learns to love asparagus. I never get tired of eating the noble weed during its too short season. My favorite way to cook it is based on a Lynne Rossetto Kasper recipe that I found many years ago and have adjusted to suit myself. It’s called Midnight Asparagus, but I make it for breakfast, lunch and dinner. It takes about 20 minutes and satisfies two hungry people.
1 1/2 pounds asparagus, more or less
Some good olive oil
½ medium onion, chopped medium fine
½ teaspoon coarse salt
¼ teaspoon fresh-ground black pepper
4 large eggs
Juice of ½ lemon
- Break off the tough ends of the asparagus stalks. This is how my mother taught me to do it: Hold the asparagus stalk at the bottom between your two hands and bend it gently, moving up the stalk, continuing to bend it until it snaps naturally without a lot of pressure. Cut each stalk into 2 or 3 pieces about 1.5 inches long. If you feel the urge to measure them, stop now because you are far too fussy to cook or even enjoy this dish. Toss the asparagus chunks and chopped onion together in a bowl and sprinkle with salt and pepper.
- Place the oven rack about 5 inches below the broiler and preheat it for a couple
- Cover the bottom of a 12-inch ovenproof skillet or sauté pan with enough olive
oil to just coat it. If you feel like you want to add more oil than this, that’s up to
you but if you do, you might want to keep your fire extinguisher at the ready. Slide
the pan beneath the broiler to heat for 2 minutes.
- Open the oven, WRAP A HOT PAD AROUND THE SKILLET HANDLE, pull
it out and dump the asparagus, onion, salt, and pepper into it. Stir this around in the
skillet to cover everything with oil, spread it all out evenly and put the skillet back
under the broiler about 2 minutes. Pull it out again (DON’T FORGET THE HOT
PAD!) stir it all around again and return it to the oven for 2 more minutes.
- Take the skillet out of the oven and push the asparagus/onion mixture to the
edges of the pan, leaving an empty space in the center. Break the 4 eggs into that
space. Watching out for the hot handle, put the skillet back in the oven under the
broiler for 1 minute more and not one second longer.
- Remove the skillet from the oven, remembering to use the hot pad. Quickly stir
the eggs and asparagus together and immediately divide it between two warm
plates. Don’t wait too long to get the mixture out of the hot pan or the eggs will
overcook and scramble. You want them to be like a sauce that coats the vegetables.
Squeeze the lemon juice over each portion, add more salt or pepper to taste and