Story and Photography By Summer Miller
When I discovered the asparagus I’d been eating for years was foraged from a stretch of land around my father-in-law’s rural community, I greeted the information like I greet most things—with fervor and excitement. Within moments I assaulted him with a barrage of questions. What do you mean you found it? Where? How do you spot it? How do you know where to look? When do you look for it? All of it— the skinny spears and the thick ones? You just drive around? Can I come?
“Well, I don’t see why not,” he said, answering only the last of my questions.
One year later I tucked my pant legs into my socks (asparagus season is tick season), pulled bright yellow rain boots onto my feet, and drove forty-five minutes to Scribner, Nebraska where we met on a plot of land near the Elkhorn River.
“Ready?” he says.
“When you will be back?” my mother-in-law asks.
“Soon enough,” he answers, saying just enough to not really say anything at all.
I climbed into his extended cab Chevy pickup with a pennant of the patron saint of travelers pinned to the visor, ready to learn how wild things settle in wide-open spaces.
We drove our way across rarely traveled blacktops, between small towns, and amid the cornfields of rural Nebraska in search of this perennial favorite. Until recently, I had only known of the persnickety spears that take three years to harvest and dedicated space to grow. Wild asparagus is wild like a runaway teenager; it’s domesticated asparagus that broke free to set up its own home under its own rules.
My father-in-law unintentionally kept the details of his hunt and harvest a secret. True to his nature, he only volunteers what is asked of him, and true to mine, the minute I entered the cab of his truck I started drilling him for information. He came equipped with a pocketknife and an old bread bag. I had a camera, notebook and iPhone.
Amid conversation about his life as a kid in rural America, he would say, “Look there, you can see it.”
Then he’d pull over on the side of the road and lead me through thigh-high ditch grass to an unassuming spot where the spring vegetable had taken up residence. The fern-like fronds of the asparagus plant announced its location. He hunched over, grabbed his pocketknife and began to cut the stalks. Some were two or three feet tall, some were thick like the fingers of man’s hand and others thin and waif-like. We stuffed them in the old plastic bread bag, hauled ourselves out of the ditch and back to the pickup.
Like most wild things, asparagus of this nature prefer to be untethered. Its seeds are dispersed by forces of nature, and grow best in road ditches and along fence lines free from trees that would shade them. We would find one small patch in blazing sunlight, then drive a few miles and find another.
Some spots offer only a few spears, others five or six. Sometimes, another forger beat us to it. With each find our excitement grew, well, my excitement grew; he remained steady and perhaps a bit stunned at my enthusiasm. It’s a hallmark difference between us.
Spotting the green perennial amid equally green grass requires keen observation and patience. It’s the thrill of discovering a “good” patch or coming home with a large bundle that keeps you going. Anyone who hunts or forages for food knows this momentary excitement, and how it pushes you to continue scanning the landscape until your eyes blur even after you’ve searched for hours and found nothing.
According to my own foraging and a USDA map, wild asparagus can be found in Dodge, Douglas and Sarpy counties in Nebraska and Harrison and Mill counties in Iowa. It likely exists in Washington, Saunders, Cass, and Pottawattamie counties as well, but the map lists them as unreported.
It’s best to search in mid-summer when the plant sends up tall fern-like stalks of seed above the grasses. Mark the spot, then count the days until spring’s arrival when the landscape changes and wild food emerges from unlikely places. Thick stalks are as tender as thin ones; the woodiness some associate with asparagus has less to do with thickness of the stalk and more to do with the age of the plant. I think it tastes better than anything bought at the store, or even from the farmer’s market, but that’s likely because we work so hard to get it.
Similar to hunting for spring’s other harbinger—the Morel Mushroom, a trained eye and a bit of practice go a long way, but unlike Morels, the spots for asparagus can be marked once found, making harvesting the perennial plant easier each year.
My father-in-law identifies asparagus patches with strings or plastic bottles. He ties them to markers or barbed wire fences. If it’s near a home place, he asks permission, otherwise, he figures it’s free for the taking.
We drove for hours that day. I had hoped to coax out his life story, to get a better understanding of a man so different from myself. But we spent much of the ride in silence. From time to time he would point out how one corner of a cornfield looked different from the next, he knew what used to be and how at one time there were four families farming this quarter and now there is only one.
One country road blends into another, and if I’m honest, I’d have to admit, it all looks the same to me. I haven’t cultivated slowness like he has. Slowness from tracking wild animals for fur or meat, or studying how the landscape changes in the few minutes that exist between civil twilight and nautical twilight. People who move slowly have an ability to notice transitions in the world around them, specifically, I think, this is true of rural communities. They know the color of their neighbor’s car, the name of the cousin of person who lived in the house on the corner some 5 or 10 years ago, and they notice when small spots in the landscape have changed. They take time to investigate and often discover something delicious in its most wild and adventurous state.
I have learned from my in-laws to appreciate the art of communicating slowly. I appreciate it in the same way that I admire painters, or people who quilt or craft. I am not capable of such things, but I can see how it contributes to the world around me and I’m grateful someone can do it.
Summer Miller’s writing has appeared in Grit, Saveur and Every Day with Rachael Ray. Her first book, New Prairie Kitchen: Stories and Seasonal Recipes from Chefs, Farmers and Artisans of the Great Plains, was heralded by Oprah Winfrey’s private chef as “more than a cookbook—it’s a love letter to the heartland.” Summer writes at ScaldedMilk.com.