Stockton, the thirteenth largest city in California, has traditionally had an agriculturally based economy. Even though its economy is shifting into a more diversified array of industries during the last decade, the Asparagus Festival is a reminder and a celebration of the local population that produced and harvested a major historical crop over twenty years ago. The festival was also started as a way to generate funds for the local community. Last year, the festival directly contributed over $250,000 to charities and non-profits in San Joaquin County and, over the years, has contributed over $3 million.
Over the three days, the festival can draw as more than 100,000 people. Vendors line the main strip serving the standard fare for food festivals - corn dogs, barbeque chicken and beef, roasted corn, and outrageously priced sodas. Off to one side of the main road was the largest and most extensive children's play land I had ever seen assembled for a food festival - complete with several multi-story inflatable castles and funhouses, a bungee-assisted trampoline, and more. On the other side of the road was a less impressive (in fact, ridiculously small) farmer's market. The obligatory festival stage highlighted entertainers like Sha Na Na, Gregg Rolie, and Eddie Money. Even so, I was mostly interested in "Asparagus Alley" - the volunteer run asparagus themed food preparation tents where foods and beverages like Deep Fried Asparagus, Asparagus Burritos (with an amazingly tasty asparagus salsa served on the side), Tri-tip and Asparagus Sandwiches, and Aspara-Mary (a Bloody Mary with an asparagus spear instead of celery) are served.
I was most impressed with the Deep Fried Asparagus. At first (bite), I didn't think much of this method of preparation, but by the time I finished the spear I was hooked on the mild, tender asparagus surrounded by the lightly and crispy, slightly salted batter that surrounded each spear.
Even more interesting was what was going on inside the preparation tent. It looked like an army was busy preparing and frying the asparagus while cashiers were taking money from the couple in front of me and simply holding up their fingers to tell the "runners" how many servings of asparagus they needed. I kept trying to steal a glance at how so much asparagus was being handled while I paid my $5. I resolved to find a way into that tent and see for myself how the food was being prepared.
After finishing off the Deep Fried Asparagus, eating an Asparagus and Beef Burrito, examining the produce at the Farmer's Market, wandering through the arts and crafts stands, and watching local celebrities perform asparagus cooking demonstrations while participating in an escalating speaker volume cold war with the Kitchen Craft Cookware pitch man, I finally pulled out my map of the festival and determined the only place left that I hadn't look for a secret entrance to the food preparation tents. We walked back along the main road to a large (and now obvious) entrance where volunteers were streaming in and out. After flashing my media access pass, we were in.
When we entered the deep-fried asparagus tent there were around 400 volunteers (out of over 5,000 volunteers that came together to support this year's Asparagus Festival) working assembly line style to prepare all the asparagus. Asparagus was cleaned and trimmed on one end of the table and placed into a tray that was accessed by the next person who dropped them into batter. Each line was supported by "batter boys" who would lug 5-gallon buckets full of batter that had been prepared earlier over to the batter station to refill when necessary.
After a soak in the batter (of random time as far as I could tell), the volunteer would individually withdraw a spear, hold it by the end of the stalk, and allow excess batter to drip off. Some volunteers sped up the process by running their other hand (both hands were gloved, of course) down the stalk to remove excess batter. From my observations, this proved to result in an inferior deep-fried asparagus as the fried batter was extremely thin. The battered asparagus was then dropped into frying oil for about two minutes. The asparagus was allowed to drain for a few seconds and then plated and topped with some kind of mysterious pre-grated cheese that I was told was Parmesan. It didn't taste like Parmesan, but it tasted good on the deep fried asparagus.
Most of the volunteers preparing and selling the deep fried asparagus were high school students and parents. Everyone had their role and everyone was smiling (even the ones that didn't realize that I was in the tent with a camera). You could feel the community pride and spirit in these volunteers as they prepared hundreds of thousands of deep fried asparagus spears.
|A lot of asparagus is needed to supply the deep-fried asparagus tent...|
|...a LOT of asparagus|
The neighboring tents were not as large and impressive as the deep-frying tent, but the enthusiasm of the volunteers was no less. Teams of cooks prepared massive amounts of asparagus pasta sauce (with mushrooms, olives, tomatoes, garlic, and green onions) to be served over generous amounts of fusilli pasta. The sauce was made in several large wok-like pots set on top of 55-gallon metal drums equipped with powerful propane burners.
Outside, a different set of drums were rigged up as smokers to barbeque genuine black angus tri-tip for the Trip-Tip Sandwiches.
By the end of the festival on Saturday, they had run out of Asparagus burritos and were selling the tri-tip sandwiches two for one. For $5, we ate our fill (and our dinner) before driving home - happy after a day of fun, relaxation, and witnessing true community spirit - a side of food festivals easy to overlook.}?>