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Asparagus Festival

by Michael Chu
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Last week, we had the opportunity to attend the 21st Annual Stockton Asparagus Festival - a three day community fund raising event for the Stockton and San Joaquin County area celebrating a crop that California farmers provide to the worldwide population - asparagus.

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.

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Written by Michael Chu
Published on April 29, 2006 at 12:50 PM
13 comments on Asparagus Festival:(Post a comment)

On April 30, 2006 at 12:47 AM, *morningstar said...
Asparagus is one of those delicious and woefully unloved foods. Most of my friends refuse to touch it after having bad experiences with it (mothers overcooking it to unpalatable bitterness and then making them eat it). When cooked properly, it's delicious. Those fried asparagus stalks sound really great. <3

On April 30, 2006 at 05:14 PM, jlundell (guest) said...
Subject: asparagus
I'm just imagining the porta-potties....

On May 01, 2006 at 01:50 AM, an anonymous reader said...
Yes--the greatest concentration of stinky pee in the world!

On May 01, 2006 at 02:45 PM, Michael (guest) said...
Subject: Couldn't be any better
It's one of the best veggies on the planet. Many people seem to prefer the very slender/skinny shoots. These are from old plants and don't have the flavor that the fatter ones (Jumbo or Large sizes are the best and have a sweeter flavor). We go through about 15 lbs (called a half crate) approx every 10 days. We get it from a local farmer during the growing season (Toso Farms). My favorite method of preperation is to snap the trunk of the shoot down toward the base where the green and white portions meet (the shoots seems to snap right about there). Then fire up the grill and place them across the barbeque. Brush the spears with Extra Virgin Olive oil and sprinkle a little Kosher salt. Leave them there for 4 mins until just a little charred (brown not black) and flip them over and repeat. Take them off and enjoy. No need for butter or mayonaise or any other type of condement. You get to taste the beauty of the aspargus the olive oil and the salt with a slight hint of smoke. Wonderful. You can also place them in a microwave with a little water in the bottom of the Pyrex 9x13 pan and cover with plastic wrap for 10-15 mins on the defrost setting (i.e. 3 on our oven) until their bright green color shows up. Leaving the plastic wrap on after cooking will cause them to continue to cook and may cause them to become too well done (mushy). They are best when they still have just a slight crunch as you bite into them. With the steamed version we eat them without anything on them. I know it sounds bland but you can then taste the natural sweetness of the asparagus by itself.
And yes we have been fans of the Asparagus Festival since it began more than 20 years ago and attend almost every year.
And as far at the odor, I understand it's caused by "Aspartic Acid" in the urine. Oh Mister Wizard where are you when we need you?

On May 01, 2006 at 03:49 PM, an anonymous reader said...
From the book, "Why Do Men Have Nipples?"

Asparagus contains a sulfur compound called mercaptan. It is also found in onions, garlic, rotten eggs, and in the secretions of skunks. The signature smell occurs when this substance is broken down in your digestive system. Not all people have the gene for the enzyme that breaks down mercaptan, so some of you can eat all the asparagus you want without stinking up the place.

On May 02, 2006 at 10:12 PM, LAN3 said...
Subject: The marriage of vegetables and fire
It was a good while before I grew out of my finicky youth of abstention from vegetables, and nothing did more to get me eating good vegetables but grilling them. Asparagus is a prime example of this-- some friends pushed aside my linguica and tossed on some asparagus that had been drizzled with lemon juice, soy sauce, and garlic(?) oil, and that's when I discovered that asparagus is good. Now I eat it plainer than that, though I don't mind dressing it up one bit.

Seriously, though, there are still a few vegetables I don't have any love for, but if someone offered me a specimen of one that had been grilled, I promise I'd take a big bite.

On May 05, 2006 at 12:49 AM, an anonymous reader said...
Subject: very cool
As a Stockton native, I've gone to the Asparagus Festival many times. Even though I don't really like asparagus, I will eat generous amounts of the delicious fried asparagus and excellent tri-tip sandwiches. I had never seen what went on behind the scenes further than squinting through the meshed screens. Thank you for reporting your experience!

On May 14, 2006 at 12:29 PM, James Lithgow (guest) said...
Subject: The Bet
When my son was 8 years old and wouldn't eat aspargas I bet him $100 that he would like it before he turned 30...the thinking was that I would have easily saved $100 in aspargus in the 22 years. He was eating the spears by the time he was 25...and still owes me the 100.

On May 28, 2006 at 01:58 PM, Nona (guest) said...
Subject: asparagus pee
yum asparagus...the cbc radio program quirks and quarks had a food scientist on explaining the aspargus pee question

On March 17, 2007 at 05:41 PM, TONY (guest) said...
Subject: No longer going to festival
ALL of my family and friends have NOT gone to the festival since it moved downtown from the oak grooved park at Eight Mile and I-5.
Who wants to park their car on a street far from the festival and walk on cement in the sun (no trees) for miles! Not to mention deal with the downtown element (winos, whores, pimps, drug addicts and drug dealers)
They moved it from a grassy oak tree covered park...and for what reason?
So the city counsel could try and justify all the money wasted trying to rebuilt the run downtown area!

On June 05, 2007 at 03:40 PM, rkistner (guest) said...
I love asparagus and would absolutely love to take my mom there. One thing she did for us kids by cooking a lot of fresh vegetables was introduce us to a world of good food. A lot of my friends have never touched, let alone eaten, asparagus, artichokes, or even veggies like yellow wax beans, all of which my family loves.

On September 11, 2008 at 09:32 PM, Abe Goldstein (guest) said...
Subject: Great festival
We love the festival. Asparagus is one of our favorite foods and the festival in Stockton is very much a delight. Thank you so much for the pictures and article, it makes my mouth water! Downtown is a great location.

On May 22, 2010 at 03:16 PM, an anonymous reader said...
Subject: Asparagus ist Spargel auf Deutsch
It's nice to hear of a city celebrating this underappreciated vegetable, but how about a whole country? Mid-April through late May is Spargelzeit (Asparagus season) in Germany, and after spending two weeks on a self-guided tour that covered representative areas of most Germany, I can't recall a single restaurant that failed to have a special menu insert with their Spargelzeit specials.

Spargelcremesuppe (Asparagus cream soup) was ubiquitous, as was a half kilo of Spargel with your choice of wurst, schnitzel, pork steaks, or some other inspiration of the chef. The marktplatzen (market squares) all had vegetable stands prominently featuring mounds of fresh Spargel. The Germans take their Spargel seriously!

The biggest difference is that I never saw green Spargel. The Spargel Felden has long cloth runners down each row of Spargel to keep the sun off the stalks, preventing the maturation of chlorophyll, producing white stalks. The stalks were also permitted to grow larger than our green shoots, so base diameters the size of quarters were not unusual. Stalks this size have a rather tough outer layer, so one must peel this outer layer before cooking the Spargel.

An asparagus lover should place a trip to Germany for Spargelzeit high on their "bucket list."

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