I rush back from St. Croix in early April to my home in the Hudson Valley because I can’t miss spring. I look forward to the cheerful daffodils and aromatic hyacinths pushing up near the house, but, really, I return for the soft pussy willow, the dogwood blossoms embracing the field, the apple trees’ smear of pink on the hill, the maple’s red leaf buds against the crisp blue sky, the delicate bright green leaves of the poplars, the haze of Hudson Valley light at dawn breaking over the field. It is also prime time for foraging the fleeting fiddlehead ferns—which have only a week’s window before they unfurl and become toxic—and wild asparagus. I look at my photographs and Instagram postings from the previous year and time my arrival to accommodate all those delicate gifts of hope and bounty and culinary delight that comprise mother earth’s annual reawakening.
Once I’m home, foraging provides a valid excuse to go for a walk, to be outside, reacquaint with the property, check on things. To take Dexter on a jaunt. There is something immensely satisfying about eating off the land, off my own land. I am fortunate to have several extraordinary meadows and ample woods, which are particularly generous in early spring when the garden still sleeps. Friends plant and tend to productive gardens, reap trunks full of tomatoes in July. My clay soil nor the deer are worth fighting—I have tried—and so I let nature decide what she will give me. And there is something about finding food rather than shopping for or even growing it, making a plate of tender wild greens particularly precious.
I admit that foraging is a bit of a misnomer for what I do at this point. I know, for the most part, where to find the delectables. I discovered an enormous stand of Ostrich fern years ago, and so I make a beeline to that spot in the woods after hitting the stream for watercress. My secret, inadvertent crops become destinations on my walks. I scour the field and forest floor on my way. Sometimes, I am lucky to stumble across unexpected dividends, which become part of future rounds.
I have a half dozen places I seek asparagus. However, because they are spread over acres of the field, it is hard to remember exact coordinates. Every year I tell myself that I will map them, but I don’t. The Christmas tree (complete with red bulbs) each asparagus spear becomes when it grows out would serve as a marker if John, who bales my field, didn’t take them down with the grass. So, in a way, I still have to re-find the asparagus each year. The sense of discovery still holds.
I harness and leash Dexter since he can’t be off-lead, what with all the distractions—turkeys and squirrels in the distance—before we head out the door. I put on my tall black Hunter boots to reduce the possibility of being fodder for ticks and poison ivy, but both pose significant risks. In mid-April, the meadow is still low. The spears are visible. I push away the grass and poison ivy with my toe and break the stem off at the ground. Just a month later, the two-foot-high grass obscures the asparagus. By that time, if I find asparagus above grass height, it is gargantuan and—save for the last foot—inedible. By the end of May, the grass is three-foot—Dexter can barely get through—and most of the un-found asparagus has likely gone to seed.
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A few weeks ago, I waved a handful of asparagus in front of Dexter’s nose and said asparagus! Hoping to train him to sniff them out. And he does, especially when we are close, in an area I know has yields. The problem is, he seems to like asparagus, or at least he likes seeing me riled up. If he gets there before I do, he nips off the top, treasured inch. Noooo, Dexter! I hold him close and am cautious in our approach.
To be fair, half of my asparagus harvest actually comes from my garden. I transplanted some from the field a decade ago, and it has spread among my perennials. But even in the garden, discovery is involved. The delicate helmeted head doesn’t come up exactly where I look, that is, where it was before or where I planted it. From the same underground root system, or perhaps the result of a previous year’s blowing red seed, it pushes up behind, through, under other plantings a foot away. While I visit the field daily, I check the garden twice on a sunny May day; it can grow six inches in a single afternoon. I keep an eye on coy Dexter to make sure he stays away from that part of the garden. And I rarely plan even weekend getaways during this time. A long weekend can mean the asparagus will grow out and go to seed, the season is over, curtailed.
I place whatever I’ve harvested in a glass with a half-inch of water until I am ready to cook them, generally when there’s a critical mass. The asparagus continues to grow, sometimes another foot if I wait a day or two. It’s comical and a little creepy, actually. These are not twenty stems of equal length and girth in a purple rubber band. Each spear has a character all its own, bulbous or slender, curled, crooked or bowed.
I grill, roast, saute or boil them. I have had to become inventive in their preparation, as for weeks, they are a diet staple. I throw them into a risotto with ramps and fiddleheads or savour them alone. My latest favourite dish is asparagus roasted in olive oil and sea salt, then cut into bite-size pieces, tossed in their cooked oil, French feta and juice of half a lemon. Magic.
When people set out to forage, they are usually after the big five, like on a safari: fiddleheads, morels, truffles, chantarelle, ramps. Many other abundant and invasive edibles with high nutritional values interest people less, such as nettles, watercress, garlic mustard, lamb’s quarters, sorrel, elderberry, milkweed, and walnuts. And people love to eat flowers in salads or waters or teas. I have a hard time sacrificing peonies, pansies, lilac and roses. Asparagus is not generally on the list, it seems. Perhaps because it is uncommon, or not really wild, but feral, having escaped domestication. Sometimes I wonder if someone a century ago grew asparagus here in the upper field. I heard that there used to be an asparagus farm in the Hudson Valley that was chopped into a housing development. Asparagus pushes up in their lawns between above-ground pools and trampolines. I ponder how many of those homeowners recognize— or are oblivious to—their good fortune.
Foraging has become a bit of a rage, almost a competitive sport, in part driven by the foodie movement and reconnection to nature. I sometimes wonder where people are foraging. Public parks? Private property? A friend-chef texted the other day asking if she could come to forage my property. I think she was after morels, which I haven’t seen much in the past few years. I didn’t want to sound or be stingy, but I’m keeping it for personal consumption if I find a cherished morel. She had been out foraging with someone else who found forty pounds of morels. Forty pounds sounds almost wrong, an assault. I found only three morels this year. I soaked them overnight in salt water to extract the bugs, drenched them in flour and sauteed them in bacon grease, black pepper and garlic. I served them with a clean palette of boiled asparagus and savoured every morsel. Spring.
Cynthia McVay divides her time between St. Croix and an old orchard in the Hudson Valley, where she writes, forages and makes art. Cynthia’s work has been published in Orion, University of Pennsylvania Gazette, Chestnut Review, DASH, The Ravens Perch, 2019 Orison Anthology, Ragazine, daCunha’s Anthology 2, and Eclectica. Her work was the winner, the 2018 Orison Anthology Award in Nonfiction; performed in the UK as Editors’ Choice winner, daCunha’s 2017 Flash Nonfiction Competition. Find her on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and at www.cynthiamcvay.com.